Hello from the CC van on the way to Gothic! As we embark on our five day field trip to the remote research laboratory located several miles North of Crested Butte, I can’t help but think of the earlier trips we did this block. Our first field trip was a day trip to Bear Creek Nature Center and later Garden of the Gods Park. With a member of the staff, we embarked on a guided loop through three different types of ecosystems in the park.
The first area was riparian, the wetlands adjacent to creeks, streams, and rivers. Because of the amount of moisture here, many plants thrive. The tallest trees are often found lining these areas, and in turn, help to protect watershed health by minimizing erosion. The health of these watersheds is important for a multitude of reasons, but one interesting fact is that Bear Creek was the site in which the last native population of Cutthroat Trout, previously thought to have been extinct, were located! While streams may look frozen over, water is almost always flowing underneath and life continues to exist through the winter. When the top layer of a creek freezes over, it limits the space in which other water can flow through and therefore the flow becomes stronger as its forced through limited space. This increase in energy will usually prevent the whole stream from freezing.
The next area we observed were the shrub lands. Here, we encountered “deer pizza” named as a favorite snack of the local mule deer. The shrub, also known as Mountain Mahogany, was often chewed up and surrounded by the distinct two part pointed hoof prints of these common mammals. The last environment was the meadows, the highest elevation area of the center. Here, we noticed many grasses and Yucca plants, and it was much more open than the previous two locations. We were able to identify many trees and birds, such as junipers, gamble oaks, and chickadees, for our whole block assignment to identify and explain a bit about 20 different species present for Colorado winters. We also did a brief introduction to snow science with Ryan Hammes by using crystal cards and magnifiers to look at snowflake shape and size. The big fat snowflakes that skiers and riders dream about are called “stellar.” We’re all familiar with the fact that each snowflake is unique, but we also learned that each snowflake originally starts out with 6 arms! Stellar snowflakes continue to have 6 distinct arms, while other snow in windy or warm weather may lose some of their arms on their descent. Lastly, we tested the temperature gradient in the snowpack. We will continue our snow science tests in the field in Gothic!
Our next field trip during first week was to the majestic Pikes Peak where we met with Ranger Jeffrey Hovermale. We identified a few other trees during a brief hike around. The main takeaway on our van ascent up the peak was to notice how elevation impacted what species of trees we were seeing. Tree line is often associated with elevation, but it is actually determined by temperature. Tree line is the point of elevation at which trees stop growing, but it is often higher the closer to the equator you get, and can even vary on one slope based on its aspect (the ordinal direction a slope faces). We finished the day out with “zen ecology.” More than enjoying the bluebird day by resting in the snow, we sat in silence and isolation for a period of 20-30 minutes to observe the environment and creatures that we might otherwise scare away or miss while clomping around on snowshoes.
Back in the classroom on Friday, we had a guest visitor from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Ranger Frank McGee. While McGee is also a federal employee like Hovermale, their jobs offered them unique perspectives. Much of McGee’s work is law enforcement, as the black market trade for animals and animal products is surpassed only by the drug trade. Additionally, Colorado Parks and Wildlife does much of their education and monitoring programs of local populations in the winter. They are also responsible for species reintroductions, such as the proposed bill on the ballot for Grey Wolf introduction. Overall a really great week with lots of time in the field and viewpoints from some experts!