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It’s 6:00 a.m. on the North Platte River in Kearney, Nebraska. In the distance, on Interstate 80, the early morning hum of trucks traveling this highway that runs nearly 3000 miles, from San Francisco to New Jersey, can be heard .

Jim 2015 117On the sandbars in front of us the sandhill cranes awaken, uttering their ancient call, and suddenly we are witnessing a migration that is more than 9 million years older, and for some of these birds a greater distance than the length of the highway.

The North Platte River begins in the Never Summer Wilderness west of Fort Collins, Colorado and heads north to Casper, Wyoming where it turns abruptly south and east toward the Nebraska Sand Hills. The Cranes migration through Nebraska formerly spanned several hundred miles of the Platte River. Due to the diversion of water from the river, for urban and agricultural uses, the character of the river has changed. The annual floods from snow melt once scoured the river, removing vegetation and leaving large areas of open sand and gravel, providing the cranes ideal habitat.

Today the river is more sluggish and a forest has grown up along its length allowing species such as the cardinal to move into new territories but reducing suitable sites for cranes. This altered landscape has caused the migration in this central flyway, which includes over 80 percent of the worlds sandhill cranes, upwards of a half million birds, to be concentrated in a narrow area between the months late February and early April.

Jim 2015 124The story of Kearney is not about wilderness, it’s a story about man and bird tolerating and in some ways benefiting from one another. In order to recover from the journey they have already made, traveling up to 500 miles in one day, and to prepare for the distance still to go, the birds must increase their body weight by 20 percent.

While in the region the cranes feed primarily on corn gleaned from farms along the river low lands. The birds however pay their share in the form of ecotourism revenue. Visitors flocking to see the birds bring in over 10 million dollars to Kearney every year.

New Mexico 2012 149In A Sand County Almanac, 1949, Aldo Leopold mourns the loss of America’s wetlands and predicts the demise of these magnificent birds “The last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh…and then a silence never to be broken, unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way.

Unlike the endangered whooping crane, the sandhill cranes population is healthy and thriving. The success of the cranes survival was not entirely without human intervention. In 1974, a bequest from Lillian Anette Rowe, a wildlife biologist, made possible the purchase of 782 acres including 2.5 miles of the river channel, wet meadows and some agricultural fields.

New Mexico 2012 071Today the Rowe Sanctuary owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, has grown to nearly 1900 acres and offers dawn and dusk viewings of the birds from blinds along the river.

Land Stewardship Plan June 354On a warm afternoon a tiger swallowtail butterfly rests on the orange-pink flower of a swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata). Native bumblebees lumber awkwardly, slowly, seemingly contented as they lazily sample each flower on the stalk of the side-bells penstemon (penstemon secundiflorus), under the warm summer sun.

As young ospreys test out their fragile wings, slowly gaining strength, a pair of western grebes run across the surface of the lake performing their ancient, miraculous dance. This is not the wilderness, a national park, or even a carefully “preserved” natural area. This is habitat that was intentionally designed and built in the midst of a rapidly growing neighborhood, The Lakes at Centerra.

The concept for this neighborhood, which features “nature in your backyard” as a major marketing piece, is the result of a unique collaboration between a non-profit (High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC), a developer (McWhinney), builders, businesses and residents. Soon a K-8 public school with a STEM focus (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) will be added to the mix. Students will be able to utilize the adjacent environmental center, comprised of 275 acres of wetlands, as a “living laboratory”.
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This symbiotic relationship between economic and environmental interests provides a hopeful vision for conservation in the 21st century focused not on conserving wild places that already exist but on restoring habitat for wildlife within the neighborhoods that we design and build.

The Lakes neighborhood will consist of 791 units, including single family homes, townhouses and apartments, spanning 300 acres, as well as scores of acres of restored open space and community parks. The development began as an agricultural field, portions of which were weedy and abandoned (one section contained a junk yard with a century of accumulated waste, including an entire railroad car.) The area was substantially regraded creating wetland drainages throughout the neighborhood.

The result is a large scale constructed wetland habitat, spanning more than 20 acres in phase one, which has been seeded with native grasses arranged in zones according to soil moisture. Sedges and rushes will emerge from wetland micro pools, which will remain open water year round. The saturated soils above the wet pools contain native tallgrass species such as Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Yellow Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and Switch grass (Panicum virgatum). The higher dryer portions of the open space support short grass species including Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and Western Wheat Grass (Pascopyrum smithii.)

img_2310Gregory Holman, a restoration ecologist with USDA-ARS and an HPEC board member, says; “you can have mosquitos in concrete drainages that hold as little as a quarter inch of water. The difference in these ponds is that here you also have tadpoles, predatory insects and other biological controls that help to regulate mosquito populations while supporting a wide range of wildlife species in the midst of development.”

Since 2006, Centerra has been focused on creating storm water ponds, vegetated with native plants that replicate the ecological function of wetlands, providing wildlife habitat and purifying runoff. In 2008, the document Centerra Guidelines for Natural Areas and Stormwater Drainage, won an environmental stewardship award from the American Society Landscape Architects. The document was the result of collaboration between Ark Ecological Services, BHA (a landscape architecture firm), McWhinney and HPEC.

022Historically the site was high plains grassland dominated by short grasses and shrubs. In 1907, the lake that lies at the heart of HPEC was dug. Known as “Equalizer” this reservoir is part of a working irrigation system and is used for moderating the levels of other reservoirs in the Greeley Loveland Irrigation Company system. A second reservoir “Houts” was dug to the north of Equalizer for John Houts, the great, great grandfather of Chad and Troy McWhinney, the developers of Centerra.

When the McWhinney’s brought their plan for the 3000-acre development to the City of Loveland, the City stipulated that the development would be 20 percent open space at build out. McWhinney hired an environmental consulting firm (Cedar Creek) to do an assessment of environmentally sensitive areas. The study identified setbacks surrounding the two reservoirs, based on existing vegetation. The setbacks that resulted from this study became the foot print of what would become the HPEC. Tom Hoyt, the president of McStain Neighborhoods, suggested creating a stand-alone 5013c to become the recipient of the land. McWhinney readily embraced the idea and voluntarily imposed an environmental assessment fee which is collected by the City when building permits are issued for projects within Centerra, west of 1-25. The accumulated “environmental assessment fees” will grow to an endowment of four- million dollars by the build out of Centerra.

The use of native plants in residential landscaping blurs the line between restored habitat in open space and backyard gardens. The design guidelines for the neighborhood actively encourage homeowners to utilize native and xeric plants, as well as native lawns.

HPEC manages open space for other landownersAs an additional source of revenue the environmental center manages open space for the Centerra Metro District and other land owners. HPEC also grows native plants from locally collected “eco-types.”

The native plants are used for landscaping within the neighborhood and in restoration projects. The proceeds from both the nursery and open space management programs fund the centers public outreach and environmental education programs.

HPEC is in the process of constructing the visitor center located within The Lakes at Centerra Neighborhood. The visitor center will officially launch on May, 16, 2015 with a public event including a native plant sale and presentations on pollinators, sustainable landscaping and sustainable living.

For more information visit http://www.suburbitat.org

On Mother’s day we acknowledge the gifts that our Mothers have given to us and the sacrifices they have made for our well-being. Today I am contemplating the incredible vulnerability of wild birds, rabbits, and other creatures who lie out on the open ground exposed to all kinds of weather and other challenges, with incredible patience and, could we not say, “love”.

IMG_7415At High Plains Environmental Center we have a Kildeer nesting on the ground in our garden. All day she sits on her three speckled eggs. If anyone comes near she gets up and walks away from the nest. First she writhes around on the ground feigning injury and if one comes closer she gets up and pretends to limp away dragging an injured wing. If you get closer still she will fly off screaming Kee! kee! kee! kee! kee! And, hopefully, after this brief chase scene, the intruder will have forgotten the location of her precious eggs.

This strategy has worked extremely well, protecting eggs from coyotes and raccoons, for millions of years but for human beings stomping around, or driving off trail, it has little effect. Many people would probably not even notice the elaborate dance that she performs. With the loss of habitat and increased population along the Front Range ground nesting birds are increasingly vulnerable. In fact, their numbers have dropped by sixty percent over the last 40 years. For that reason we have chosen to wait on tilling a portion of our demonstration gardens until late May/Early June when the eggs will hatch. a (4)

When the mother kildeer’s eggs hatch the young killdeer will emerge “precocious” that is, not all downy and fluffy but looking exactly like smaller versions of their mother. After a short period of time they will begin will to scream kee! kee! kee! and engage in their life of running and feeding along the muddy shorelines of ponds and lakes.

The People of Tibet have a lovely saying that we should regard all beings with kindness as they may have been our mothers in a previous lifetime. Whether we believe this or not, surely we can admire the devotion and courage that these small birds display, waiting patiently and protecting the lives of their offspring in a world that is increasingly disrupted.

 

May 7th 015

3rd grade students visiting HPEC wetland demonstration garden.

Since Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books) was published in 2005 there has been an ever-increasing focus on getting students of all ages connected with their natural surroundings. High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC) in Loveland has been working closely with local schools in the Thompson School District over the last six years to promote nature-based learning. This movement toward building outdoor classrooms and nature playscapes has been literally grassroots almost always originating with a small and inspired group of parents and teachers. On a muddy day in January, I set out to interview some of the individuals whose passion has breathed life into these projects.

 

Big Thompson Elementary

At Big Thompson Elementary School, I spoke with Christa Ahrens and Kerri Rollins, both parents of children who attend the school.  In 2009, Big T staff decided to pursue a nature and science designation for the school. Because many of the teachers had already pursued additional training in environmental education, the designation was a natural fit for what was already being incorporated into the classroom. The staff was inspired to make additional curriculum changes necessary to meet this new vision. Great things were happening inside of the school including the conversion of an unused classroom into an interactive science lab, and they wanted to turn their attention to the outdoor space around the school.

The next step was to have a contest to “design your dream playground”. Students and their families participated and presented some very creative ideas. The school received more than 40 proposals and spent over a year sorting through them to come up with a design that integrated the best concepts.

The resulting design for the nature playscape at Big T has a hydrological flume that demonstrates erosion and sedimentation, a climbing wall that depicts ecosystems at different altitudes and animal adaptation for various life zones, an embankment slide where students can learn about gravity and balance, and a bio-swale where native plants will purify water that runs off of the playground before it returns to the river.

There are many sustainably built features of the playground including a recycled rubber tire surface for the play yard and an artificial turf ball field. The flume construction was funded primarily by a grant from Pulliam Charitable Trust. The school also received grants from Great Outdoors Colorado and New Belgium Brewing to complete the half-million dollar playground renovation.

Plants for the bio-swale, which are being donated by High Plains Environmental Center, include native grasses such as; Big Bluestem – Andropogon gerardii, Switch Grass – Panicum virgatum, Yellow Indian Grass – Sorghastrum nutans, and Little Blue Stem – Schizachyrium scoparium. Flowering plants that attract pollinators Blue Vervain – Verbena hastata, Swamp Milkweed – Asclepias incarnata, Nuttall’s Sunflower – Helianthus nuttallii, will be included as well.

The use of native plants can run into some unforeseen restrictions in gardens at elementary schools. The school district avoids toxic plants for obvious reasons. HPEC has created a list cross referencing the Colorado Native Plant Society (CONPS) list of native plants with information on toxicity. At Big T they also had to avoid plants that have edible fruit because of the abundance of bears where the school is located.

Outdoor classrom at Big T

Outdoor classroom at Big Thompson Elementary

Aside from the nature playscape, there is a 4 acre outdoor classroom adjacent to the school. Teachers at Big T invite other schools to attend field trips on-site and Big T students conduct the tours, giving presentations on soils, geology, plants and pollination.

Lisa Coalwell, a Big T teacher, says the school has a STEM curriculum (science, technology engineering and math) which is taught in the outdoor classroom. Working cooperatively, students measure and identify natural processes as fast or slow. Recent natural events in the area, floods and fires, have provided vivid examples of fast processes. Weathering and erosion of the adjacent foothills demonstrate slower processes.

The outdoor classroom is also a place where students follow compass coordinates during treasure hunts to find native plants, identify them, and read about the ways that Native Americans use them for food and medicine.

Jim Cooper, another teacher at Big T spoke with great eloquence and passion about the outdoor classroom as the place where students spend solo time working on descriptive writing and journaling, “They produce really beautiful things over there that they wouldn’t in the classroom” he said.

A number of groups in the community have utilized the outdoor classroom for various programs including poetry, writing, and art. Rocky Mountain National Park has offered community outreach programs there. The Northern chapter of CONPS will offer a tour of this remarkably diverse site this summer with the intention of organizing a plant inventory for the school

 

Namaqua Elementary

Michele Mandeville’s passion for the wild began in early childhood when she played outdoors and learned about wildlife and nature. As an adult, her connection to nature was rekindled when, after a personal tragedy, it was the place that she went to for solace and healing. She wanted her own children to have access to the restorative and sustaining quality of nature.

Michele volunteered to organize and lead trips to nearby natural areas, such as Bobcat Ridge, while being an active parent during her children’s preschool years. She enjoyed seeing the spark of curiosity that it ignited in the kids.  She commented about how simple it is to get kids connected with nature “just by going outside, noticing small things, bird calls, the color of a flower, and letting them lose themselves in the environment a little bit.”

This led to Michele starting an outdoor club, Namaqua Outdoors, at her children’s school, Namaqua Elementary.

The Namaqua Outdoors program led to the desire to build an outdoor classroom at the school. The funding for the garden comes primarily from within the school community. The school principal, Donald Beuke, teachers, and parent committee are all very supportive and have committed funds to the project.

The outdoor classroom will have native shrubs, grasses and flowers encircling a seating area beneath a large old cottonwood that will provide dappled shade. Ironically, the spot where the outdoor classroom is being built was covered by

Pollinator gardens help to teach about real-world applications of science and provide students with a sense of place.

Pollinator gardens help to teach about real-world applications of science and provide students with a sense of place.

rabbitbrush and native plants until a decade or so ago when parents raised money to turn it into a “nice” irrigated turf area. Fortunately the trend is now going in the opposite direction and we have an opportunity to restore Colorado’s unique native bio-diversity in schools.

Activities in the outdoor classroom will include having students adopt a shrub or tree for a year and track its seasonal changes. Kids will be able to measure the influx of birds and butterflies that visit when the native garden is done, track them, learn about them and write about them.

A native of the Eastern US, Michele has come to appreciate Colorado landscapes in winter and the way that grasses and plants dry and remain in place so beautifully. “You don’t have that back East,” she said “everything dies down in the winter.”

When asked what she hopes students will gain from the outdoor classroom, Michele said, “a sense of place,  a connection to where they grew up, where they went to school, and to the native plants that sustain life.”

Centennial Elementary

Stacee Kersley, A Loveland based architect, was disgusted by the way the stormwater pond looked at her daughters school, Centennial Elementary.  It was a mud-pit and the neighbors were concerned about the standing water in the pond.

Stacee worked with, Jim Birdsall, a landscape architect to develop a concept for landscape improvements. The concept was presented at a PTA meeting, the group decided to pursue it and dedicated fundraising proceeds to the project.

Cara Scohy, CS Design, Inc. a landscape architect donated a detailed landscape plan. As the concept evolved the custodial staff were consulted to make sure the plan didn’t go beyond their means to maintain it.

The world  designed by middle-school students

What would a child’s world look like if she were to design it herself?

The vision for the project is much more than beautification; it will be a literal classroom with stones for seating and a focus on local ecology, native plants and their relationships with pollinating insects and birds, as well as water conservation and watershed protection.

In the past the school has focused their funding primarily on technology and the kid’s only exposure to the outdoors was a short recess break which was not very interactive with the environment. The new school principal, Kim Tymkowych, is very proactive about seeing the project through to completion.

A partnership is being pursued with the Loveland Garden Club to build support for the garden. A Mother’s Day plant sale will provide funding and in the future people will be able to donate specific plants to the project. A neighbor who frequently walked by school heard about the project and also made a substantial donation.

Stacee talked about the special quality of engaging community volunteers for projects like this “it has to be mutually beneficial” she said. Planting by volunteers is a personal investment in the project. She recalled how, on one wet June day, the former Superintendent of the School District was out wearing fancy dress shoes and planting trees in the mud along with a group of bedraggled students and their families. Twenty years down the road those students will be able to come back with their kids and say “look how it’s grown” and that builds a very personal connection.

The Pollinator Game

Connie and Eric test out equipment for the "pollinator game"

Connie and Eric test out equipment for the “pollinator game”

In November of 2013 Connie Gray, who is the President of the Northern Chapter of Colorado Native Plant Society, as well as the Education and Outreach Manager at HPEC, led HPEC staff and nearly 400 students at Cottonwood Plains Elementary School in a pollinator game.

  • Bees are the active participants in the game. They wear goggles, antennae and felt vests which they use to carry pollen from the stamens of one flower to the pistils of another. In a more elaborate version of the game the bees would sip juice from the flowers through a straw but things get messy and complicated quickly in a large group of kids
  • Pollen is provided in the form of small balls covered in Velcro which easily stick and unsticks to the other game pieces.
  • Petals for a red flower and a blue flower are made of heavy construction board and are held up by the students to form a flower.
  • Stamens are created by students pulling socks over their hands and holding their hands up with pollen sticking to them.
  • Pistils sit in the center of the petals wearing a wool caps. The bees detach the pollen from their felt vest and stick it on the pistils when they come to get the nectar.
playing the pollinator game
Playing the pollinator game

The HPEC staff were amused by the fact that the biggest boys shot their hands up when we said “who wants to be the pistils?” Presumably they thought some type of sidearm was involved. Little did they know that they were signing up to represent the essence of the feminine. Altogether the game is amusing and chaotic. It demonstrates pollination in way that is fun and easy to understand. Discussions about conserving native bio-diversity flow easily after participating in this exercise.

My Eco Dad

“Shut the door!”

…my Dad shouted, when my brothers and I left it wide open in the chilly Boston winter,

“you trying to heat the whole world?”

Now many people say that’s exactly what we’ve done, heated up the planet through excessive use of fossil fuels. Looking back, Dad said lots of prophetic stuff like that. If we left the water continuously flowing when we washed dishes Dad would say “you waste water like that, someday it will be too expensive to drink.” Little did we imagine that one day people would pay more per ounce for bottled water than we pay for gas.

We realized that our Dad was different from other kids’ parents. We much preferred it that way. Dad was cool! He read us Paul Reps’ Zen Flesh Zen Bones at bedtime and Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan; he played the tenor banjo and sang sea shanties. And though we didn’t phrase it this way at the time, we knew intuitively and unequivocally that Dad was no “Muggle.”

Dad was into organic gardening and home brewing beer; he marched to a different drummer and taught us to do the same—which isn’t so easy to do when you’re 10 or 12 years old. I remember the lunches that we brought to school and how mortified we were by the thick, uneven brown slices of homemade bread we pulled out at lunch time when all the other kids had nice, white, perfectly uniform slices of Wonderbread.

My Dad’s ability to discern between the authentic and the artificial is uncanny and so is his ability to sum it all up in one pithy comment. Regarding the first Earth Day in 1970 he said,

“I hope they’re wearing bio-degradable protest buttons.”

By example my Dad ingrained in me a strong sense of responsibility for the world. Walking through the woods Dad would pick up any trash that we came across and when we said “Dad that’s not our trash” Dad would say “it’s our world.”

My Dad is a bit of a mad scientist (it’s traditional in my family to speak of “the madness” in boastful tones). When I was a kid, Dad would be down in the basement every evening, making things like a model 19th century circus or cutting gem stones. From my father’s passions I learned that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.

I also learned that when “the madness” strikes and there is something that you absolutely must create or do, you can begin it by going to the library. I went to the library with my father many times when I was young. While he looked for books about making marionettes, or colonial period clothing, or gemology, I was reading about Indians, and Druids, and plants.

Sometimes our passions settled on the same topic. One year Dad read Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. That summer we ate cattail pancakes and elderberry jam washed down with sumac lemonade. I was, excited by the idea of “living off the land.” Eventually, I spent a week on my brother Dave’s land in New Hampshire living only on what I could gather. I mostly survived on daylily tubers and ketchup.

When my Dad was about the age that I am now he lost his job as an electronics engineer. That was the beginning of a difficult period for Dad, looking for jobs and interviewing, but never again working in his chosen field. In retrospect, I’m sure he would say that was the beginning of some of the best parts of his life.

Dad went back to school to get a biology degree from Harvard (just for fun) and graduated when he was 64. At the age of 75, Dad still works at the Boston Museum of Science, a role that combines two life-long passions: science and teaching kids new things.

Dedicated to David A. Tolstrup – A cool guy.

Rescuing Nature

Is nature really “red in tooth and claw,” is it “survival of the fittest,” or are those just  phrases that are intended to excuse our own rude and selfish behavior?

This story begins, as many of my posts do, with me walking in my neighborhood. My friend came up along side me and rang her bicycle bell. What happened next was like witnessing a crime, it all happened so fast. A squirrel near us darted out into the street. A car almost hit the squirrel and it ran back towards us. Then it attempted to cross the street again and was hit by a car coming in the opposite direction. The squirrel managed to get to the opposite curb and pulled his small body up, hand over hand, like Bruce Willis in a Die Hard movie.

There on the soft grass beneath an elm tree, that was perhaps his home, the squirrel died. Because I admired the squirrel’s bravery and determination and because I am a romantic, I carried the squirrel’s body home with me in great solemnity and gave it a burial worthy of my Viking forebearers. As my ancestors did, I laid food in the grave of the fallen warrior to sustain him on the journey to the halls of his bushy-tailed sires. A few weeks later I noticed that someone had dug the squirrel up and eaten all but the tail. It’s as if a fox had been watching over my shoulder saying “are you done playing with that? I hate to see a perfectly good squirrel going to waste.” But there I go being romantic again.

 Last fall, I was walking (again) and I saw someone dumping something out on the grass. When I got closer I saw that it was a baby bull snake. The guy that was dumping it out said that he had found the snake in an irrigation box. He had told his wife that he wanted to keep it as a pet. I was able to guess at her response as I examined the tiny snake on frozen ground, too cold for this snake to be able to find a suitable place to hibernate. I warmed the snake in my hands as I carried it to the edge of the woods and found a rotting log there in a sunny spot. I dug through the rotting wood as the snake warmed in the sun. When I poked my finger at the snake it opened its mouth as if to bite. I figured it was warm enough to find its own way to a proper depth in the debris for hibernation. I wished the snake pleasant dreams and went on my way, pondering the question “When are we actually being helpful?” It seemed to have something to do with knowing how things actually work in nature.

My dog Tashi barks her head off when something is unusual or different. Once she barked for three hours over a butterfly in our backyard that had a deformed wing. So, I knew something was up when she stood facing a lilac shrub and barked incessantly. When I looked where she was looking I saw a robin with thread wrapped around her leg and hanging upside down. With the help of our neighbor, Tara, I was able to cut the the thread loose.

Was it necessary to free this bird in the larger scheme of things? Is intervening in nature the right thing to do? I don’t know but perhaps it was this bird’s gift to me to allow me the chance to see her take off again, free, her fragile bones all intact. For weeks afterward my wife, Kathy, noticed a robin that seemed to be looking in our window. “She’s coming back to say thank you” Kathy said.

Romantic?

Is it a mistake to anthropromorphize animals? Conservationists in Baja California have had some success in curbing the illegal killing and consumption of sea turtles by encouraging fisherman to name individual turtles, using their own daughter’s names. Movies of the 1950’s and 60’s, where birds or giant insects are trying to wipe out human beings are a lot like movies about American Indians of the same period, a case of the destroyer fearing the destroyed. During that time we started wiping out insects (and subsequently birds) with pesticides and urban sprawl—and that’s a much scarier movie.

Is there tenderness in nature? What do you think?

Are individuals within species, and species within ecosystems more cooperative than competitive? Before we dismiss the capacity of animals to feel and express complex emotions like compassion, check out this link to photos of a swallow displaying shock and grief at the fall of its mate.

Each year at the High Plains Environmental Center we await the return of the Ospreys…

 

In 2006,  a group of volunteers built this nesting platform and has been inhabited by a successfully breeding pair of ospreys ever since. This osprey platform is a great example of how what we do at HPEC is not conservation (preserving what exists already) but rather restoration (creating new opportunities for nature in the midst of development).

Our friend Bill Miller (President of the Fort Collins Audubon Society) wrote the following  history of ospreys in this area.

Ospreys were relatively common on the west slope of Colorado but were mostly migrants passing through on the east slope.  At the time the only known nesting pair was found up at Parvin Lake, east of the community of Red Feather Lakes.  Ospreys are slow to pioneer into new territory but, even though the northern Front Range of Colorado had lots of suitable habitat as a result of more than a century of irrigation projects, there was not a breeding population east of the mountains.

 In 1988 and 1989 the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW), in cooperation with the Denver Museum of Natural History, the Peregrine Fund1, and interested members of the public, joined forces to establish the Peregrine Partnership with the intent to introduce peregrine chicks into the Denver urban setting using a process called ‘hacking.’  Five peregrine chicks per year were provided by the Peregrine Fund and released into a hack box on about the 20th floor of what was the Denver Post building.

 The hack box allowed volunteers to feed the chicks without being seen, thus preventing the chicks from imprinting on humans.  After reaching a certain maturity the chicks were ready to ‘fledge,’ or instinctively take flight.  Instinct would once more take over as the peregrines would take to capturing and feeding on Denver’s numerous pigeons.  Unfortunately, due to the low numbers of peregrines released to the wild through this process, relatively low survival rates in the wild for young birds, and tendencies to disperse from their fledge sites, only one of the ten chicks released in this manner was ever documented to have returned.  It defended the hack site vigorously, rendering unusable for any further releases.

 Buoyed by the enthusiastic public interest and participation in the peregrine project the CDOW determined to have another public-participation release project and assigned it the NE Regional Office in Fort Collins.  The project was assigned to Lisa Evans, NE Regional Education Coordinator.  She garnered support and participation from a variety of organizations.  A Steering Committee was formed, consisting of: members of the Fort Collins Audubon Society and the Colorado Wildlife Federation, the environmental education coordinator for the Poudre School District, the director of the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, a retired CSU wildlife biology professor, the director of the City of Fort Collins Cultural, Library and Recreational Service,  a representative of the Fort Collins Parks and Recreation Department, other employees of the CDOW,  and interested members of the public.

 The first task undertaken by the Steering Committee was to identify a bird species to be released in the Fort Collins area using the hacking process.  At this point in time reintroduction of peregrines in Colorado was being de-emphasized as the species had been released into the wild with great success.  Bald Eagles were also discussed but the Steering Committee was cautioned against them by several committee members who knew that Bald Eagle chicks can be quite difficult to work with.  Finally, Alex Cringan, recently retired CSU Wildlife Biology professor and who had grown up in Ontario and was quite familiar with the species, suggested that we consider Osprey as the species to be introduced.  The Steering Committee concurred.

 Another major detail that had to be considered was the construction of two hack towers.  These would be the first home in Fort Collins for the osprey chicks.  So the scramble was on to purchase, acquire through donation, or otherwise ‘scrounge’ materials for the two towers.  Public Service Company of Colorado, as it was called at the time, donated six long wooden power poles.  Each tower would be supported by two poles connected by two heavy 4” x 4” timbers commonly used as the cross arms on power poles.  These would provide the base structure for a cage that would be constructed about 20’ to 25’ up in the air, supported by the 4” x 4” timbers.  The cage would be about 4-ft. square, with a plywood floor and top.  The back wall, located where the ladder came up, would have a small door hinged so that volunteers could throw fish into the cage.  The other three walls would consist of electrical conduit mounted vertically in holes drilled through the upper and lower 2” x 4” boards.  The conduit was vertical because there was less chance for a chick which was testing its wings to get caught and break its wing.  The front wall was pivoted at its bottom so that it could swing outward into a horizontal position, supported by a rope.  This would be the launch pad from which the chicks would first take flight once they were ready.

 By the time we were ready to construct the two hack towers we had a sizeable body of volunteers who came with a broad set of skills.  The first tower to be built was along the Poudre River at the southern end of the CSU Environmental Learning Center (ELC).  Constructed in December of 1989 and January of 1990, it was surrounded by a chain link fence to keep ELC visitors off of it.  The second tower was constructed in the spring of 1990 on an island on the west side of the largest water-filled gravel pit that is part of the Riverbend Ponds complex north of East Prospect Street and east of the Poudre River.

 First to be constructed was a footbridge to the island, using a crane that placed the two longest of the six donated power poles across between the shore and the island.  Once that had been constructed volunteers were able to carry the shovels, scoops and other tools necessary to dig two holes for the support poles.  A helicopter was used to lift the poles into the air and transport them to the island where they were guided into the holes.  Once earth and rock were tamped around the poles the superstructure was constructed as per above, followed by the hack cage.

 In July of 1990 my wife and youngest son took a vacation trip to Lake Coeur d’Alene in Northern Idaho.  The CDOW had worked out a wildlife exchange whereby Idaho Game and Fish Department received some Bighorn Sheep in return for giving up some of their plentiful Osprey chicks.  There are numerous saw mills located along the northern end of the lake where it empties into the Spokane River.  Logs harvested from the hills around the lake are dumped into the lake, chained up to form rafts and then towed to the saw mills.  There they are corralled using more chains suspended on floating logs and extending between log pilings set into the lake bottom.  Osprey took to the pilings as nesting sites and the saw mill personnel had fitted each piling with a 4’x4’ sheet of plywood and two hay bales.  After adding a few token sticks to the hay bales and calling it a nest, Osprey were raising two to four chicks on each piling.  Needless to say, there was no shortage of osprey chicks!

 On July 10th the Idaho Game and Fish staff provided two small boats, one being equipped with an extension ladder.  Then, while other members kept that boat from drifting away from the piling, one brave soul climbed the ladder and took one or two chicks out of their nests, always leaving a minimum of two chicks in the nest.  I was able to video this operation from the second boat on the water while a CDOW cinematographer filmed the process from the Denver Channel 9 News helicopter.  A total of 10 chicks were obtained in this fashion.  It was humorous to see a motel room that night filled with osprey chicks.  Following a supper attended by all participants, my wife, son and I drove home to Colorado later that night, arriving in Fort Collins late in the afternoon of July 11th.  On July 12th the CDOW staff flew the chicks home in a fixed-winged Otter aircraft piloted by a CDOW pilot, and the chicks were released into the two hack cages on the 13th.  And then the fun started!

 For the rest of the summer it was all hands on deck.  The chicks were taken from their nests approximately four weeks before they would have fledged.  Now they had to be fed twice daily atop the wiggling hack towers.  Other volunteers would monitor and record the birds’ behaviors.  And when the birds first started to fly one would occasionally land in the water and have to be rescued by a volunteer who would swim out after the downed bird.

 Ospreys migrate south to Central and South America for the winter.  Adults will return north the following spring but the young of the previous summer will spend another full year in the south before making their first journey north.  Ospreys are found on all of the world’s continents with the exception of Antarctica.  Their diet consists of about 97% fish with the rest being snakes, lizards and amphibians.  Osprey feet and talons are unique in the world of raptors.  All raptors have four talons; all other raptors, however, have three talons facing to the front and one facing to the rear.  Osprey talons are arranged so that one of the three forward-facing talons can be turned so that they have two facing to the rear.  This enables them to gain a better grip on fish which they will then carry back to the nest or a feeding perch slung like a torpedo under them for greater aerodynamic efficiency.  Ospreys usually plunge feet first into the water to capture a fish seen from the air, and then use their powerful wings to rise above the water and fly off carrying their prey.  (See http://www.care2.com/causes/osprey-gives-amazing-fishing-lessons-video.html for how Osprey go fishing)

 

In 1991 a third hack tower was built along the Poudre River west of North Taft Hill Road.  This was called the Olander Site because students from Olander Elementary School had raised part of the funds for the hack tower’s construction.

 

Osprey chicks were obtained from Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho in the summers of 1990, 1991, and 1992.  In 1993 the chicks were taken from along the Spokane River in Washington.  Collectively approximately 57 osprey chicks were hacked at the three tower locations during the four summer hacking periods.  Since all chicks were banded at the time they were removed from their nests it was possible to determine that some of the introduced osprey had survived their first three or four years and were successful in bringing mates back to Fort Collins.  Currently there are about four or five active osprey nest sites in Fort Collins and one at Equalizer Reservoir in Loveland.  I guess one could conclude that the efforts of two decades ago were successful.

 1)      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Peregrine_Fund

 

 

 

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