Exploring Corral Bluffs

corralbluffsco_lah_0442-1Vast open spaces, blooming yucca, and constant wind were our companions on a recent hike to Corral Bluffs, an area under consideration as a new El Paso county park.

Most recently a stop for cowboys and their herds on the drive from Texas to Denver, the proposed park has a long history, dating back 65 million years. It’s hard to believe that the high plains grassland was once a sea-level swamp! Numerous fossils are being uncovered by paleontologists surveying the eroded bluffs—including a crocodilian head, as well as numerous small mammals and petrified wood.

evening-primrose_corralbluffsco_lah_0376-1Additional surveys are underway to compile lists of present-day plant and animal life, and archeologists are discovering signs of human habitation dating back to prehistoric times. One campfire left soot on an overhanging rock almost 2,000 years ago!

A locked gate enforces the current “public not allowed” status, but you can get a sneak preview by signing up for one of the monthly guided hikes. Additional hikes can be scheduled for organized groups. (That’s how I got to go.)

scarlet-gaura_corralbluffsco_lah_0392-1The group I joined was mostly concerned with native plants, although pretty much anything interesting was examined and discussed. Due to the lack of rain this spring, many plants are blooming ahead of schedule, as if trying to quickly complete their life cycle before crumbling to dust. Those in bloom are smaller than usual, another sign of stress. Even more disappointing was the discovery that many species that should have had flowers had no flowers at all, not even any buds. Now I’m eager to come back in a wet year to see what I missed.

tradescantia_spiderwort_corralbluffsco_lah_0398-1Still, we did see some blooms, such as the Evening Primrose (upper left), Gaura (upper right), and Spiderwort (left). And as I mentioned earlier, Yucca (below) was everywhere.

We were all cautioned to be wary of rattlesnakes, as the area is prime habitat. In fact, all hikers have to wear sturdy shoes and long pants, and gaiters are highly recommended. It was almost a letdown when we didn’t see any snakes at all. Probably the cool, overcast morning kept them in their holes, rather than luring them out for some sunbathing on the rocks. We did find a large lizard doing his morning pushups, and another smaller lizard munching on a moth.

corralbluffsco_lah_0430-1Although June isn’t the best time to look for birds, we were treated to a non-stop serenade by the resident Western Meadowlarks and Spotted Towhees. An American Pipit made a surprise appearance, while a pair of Rock Wrens played tag on the cliff face. Whitewash helped us find an American Kestrel’s aerie. The best sighting was a couple of young Great Horned Owls that swooped silently overhead and then perched on the top of the bluffs, 400 feet above.

Our guide mentioned that she’d seen and photographed a Roadrunner in the box canyon just the previous week. This comment generated a lot of excitement among the birders in the group, as Roadrunners aren’t traditionally seen this far north in Colorado. We urged her to report her bird to the Colorado Field Ornithologists, for inclusion in the state records.

rise-with-vertebrae_corralbluffsco_lah_0399-1Even more excitement came when a couple of particularly observant hikers spotted a Kit Fox as it darted past its den and into a grove of junipers. That was the only live mammal we found, but we did stop to examine the bleached bones of a large mammal (steer? horse?).

yucca-glauca_corralbluffsco_lah_0448-1It would have been easy to imagine ourselves making arrowheads or hunting bison at the bluffs several hundred years ago, except for the constant thunder of artillery practice at nearby Petersen Air Force Base.

If you are interested in learning more, check out the very informative Save Corral Bluffs website. That’s also where you can sign up for your own tour of this fascinating site.

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