Not to stay home on a gorgeous Saturday morning, I joined our Audubon chapter field trip to Castlewood Canyon State Park, located on the Palmer Divide between Colorado Springs and Denver. At elevations between 6,200 and 6,600 feet, the park includes ponderosa forest, dry shrubland, high prairie, and riparian areas. This diversity allows for plenty of birds, a colorful array of wildflowers, plus some pretty impressive scenery. Our loop trail along the canyon rim, down to (and across) Cherry Creek and through the riparian willows, then back up to the parking lot clocked in at 3.2 miles, but you could easily add some side trips.Somehow, we managed to arrive by 6:45 a.m., and even the birds were just beginning to stir. Since it was fairly quiet, we first got distracted by the abundant flowers—blue flax, western spiderwort, and Rocky Mountain penstemon; yellow sedum and some sort of daisy (there are so many yellow “daisies”!); wine-colored prairie smoke, pink roses and dogbane; and sweet-smelling white bedstraw.
Monument Plant, or Green Gentian (Frasera speciosa) grows for several years, then blooms and dies. Somehow, all the plants in a given area bloom at the same time, ensuring cross-pollination, but no one knows how they coordinate their bloom time, although botanists suspect it’s related to environmental factors. This is even more curious when you realize that the flower begins growing three to four years before it becomes visible to the casual observer.
We frequently encountered patches of poison ivy, so keep that old mnemonic in mind: leaves of three, let it be! This wolf spider reinforced my inclination to stay far, far away from the poison oak. Another do-not-touch plant, stinging nettles, grew near the old, broken dam.
As an added bonus, many of the plants were host to colorful insects, such as this flower beetle, and the caterpillar stage of the Mourning Cloak butterfly.
As the morning warmed, the birds became more active. Being June, most came in pairs—Mr. and Mrs. Western Bluebird, an American Robin family, and a pair of noisy House Wrens, all working hard to keep their respective broods well fed.
Given that there is no lake in the park, or even a pond, we were surprised when this Great Blue Heron flapped by, then settled into the top of a dead snag. Would it be hunting along the small stream at the bottom of the canyon? When the next bird we saw was a Belted Kingfisher, I reconsidered. Perhaps there were fish in that stream after all.
The willows lining the water provided habitat for a variety of species—Western Wood-pewees and this Cordilleran Flycatcher (right), Yellow Warblers, and even a Gray Catbird.
Then there were the Spotted Towhees, staking out their territory from the top of every tree. A Turkey Vulture soared overhead. A small flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds sipped from some pools left by a recent rain. A yet-unidentified lizard sunned itself on one of the granite boulders along the trail.
As we headed back to our cars after a delightful morning, we sighted a pair of Pronghorn gamboling across the spring-green grass, a fitting end to a thoroughly enjoyable morning. Now, with dark thunderheads moving in, it was time to head to home and lunch.