Created By: Christian Kennedy, Troop 628, Eagle Service Project
Here you can see a clump of Rubber Rabbitbrush ( ericameria nauseosa). This is not only one of the most common plants at the nature center but is also very common in the vast plains of Colorado and throughout the western part of North America. Rubber Rabbitbrush is a wonderful source of food and shelter for a variety of animals including rabbits, snakes and songbirds. A late season bloomer, this shrub will produce beautiful yellow flowers from August through October, acting as one of the final nectar sources for local pollinating insects such as butterflies and native bees. While not made of rubber, the sap of the Rubber Rabbitbrush has a rubbery texture and was studied during World War II as a possible substitute for Rubber.
Rubber Rabbitbrush provides shelter for a variety of snakes, including the Plains and Wandering Garter Snakes, the Bull Snake, North American Racer and the Prairie Rattlesnake. Since snakes are cold blooded, they get their warmth from the sun unlike humans who create their own warmth. Because of this you can spot snakes sunbathing on trails or warm concrete.
Rubber Rabbitbrush: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/57934-Ericameria-nauseosa
Plains Garter Snake: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/28378-Thamnophis-radix Wandering Garter Snake: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/28403-Thamnophis-elegans-vagrans
Bull Snake: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/60347-Pituophis-catenifer-sayi
North American Racer: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/27137-Coluber-constrictor
Prairie Rattlesnake: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/81526-Crotalus-viridis
http://www.coparc.org/snakes.html Source: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/ericameria_nauseosa.shtml#:~:text=Rubber%20rabbitbrush%20is%20also%20known,throughout%20the%20western%20United%20States.
The two ponds just visible from this spot started as a gravel pit for industry. In time, these gravel pit operations were abandoned, filled with water, and became what we know as Blackbird Pond and Muskrat Pond. The ponds were transformed gradually and naturally as plant seeds were transported to the ponds by wind or animals. Over time the plants grew, usually starting with bacteria, fungi, and algae. Eventually, insects, larger plants, and animals came to make their home in the former gravel pit. Some of the animals that make their homes in the ponds today include Mallard, Common Mergansers, Great Blue Heron, American Bullfrog, as well as Beavers, and of course Muskrats.
American Bullfrog: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/65979-Lithobates-catesbeianus
Mallard: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/mallard Common
Great Blue Heron: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Blue_Heron
If you look closely, you can see areas where the grass is matted down. This area is where our native Mule Deer population beds down. The Mule Deer is a popular species in the Rocky Mountain region. The mule deer are characterized by their large ears, small tails, and forked antler structure. Coyotes, wolves, and cougars are the three main predators of deer. Despite their impressive antlers Mule Deer do not used their antlers as defense against the predators. They mainly rear up and slash with their front hooves. The males antlers are generally used to establish dominance and so attract mates. After rutting or mating season the Mule Deer shed their antlers to be able to grow bigger one the next season. The deer mostly eat from shrubs and trees but can eat for other things as well. The mule deer migrate from the higher elevations in the summer to lower areas in the winter.
Mule Deer: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/42220-Odocoileus-hemionus
The pavilion here hosts the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies bird banding. Bird banding is a process where migratory birds are caught in Mist nets. Numbered bands are placed on their legs, several measurements and observations are taken and then the birds are released. If the bird is observed or caught later the number is fed into a database. The information helps ornithologists build up patterns of migration, feeding habits, age, and general health of the population of different species. Families are encouraged to come and visit to see science in action!
Beaver Chew Tree
Lots of dogs enjoy chew toys. Beavers enjoy chew trees. Beavers are the largest rodent native to North America. Because they are rodents their front teeth never stop growing so beavers not only chew on trees to get material for their building projects but also to maintain a proper length for their teeth. Looking at the base of the tree the amount that has been chewed off is impressive but there is no danger of the tree falling anytime soon.
Beavers can be found in the areas around Muskrat Pond. Muskrat pond has a beaver lodge and nearby in the South Platte River, there is a beaver dam. The beavers make the lodges to escape from predators as well as provide a residence that protects from the elements & predators. It also gives them a place to stash food. Beavers are ecosystem engineers, so while some may view their habits as destructive, they provide critical habitat to a large number of other species. When you are walking around the nature center next time, look out for a beaver chew tree.
If you look up from this spot you can see a power line tower and if you are lucky you can see raptors on top of the tower. Some of the raptors that can be seen around the nature center include the Red Tailed Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk, Osprey, Great Horned Owl, Golden Eagle, and Bald Eagle. Raptors love high perches because it allows them a good view of the countryside to look for food. And because raptors dive to get their food, a tall perch allows them to build up speed for their strike!
Red-Tailed Hawk: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-tailed_Hawk/
Turkey Vulture: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Turkey_Vulture
Cooper’s Hawk: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/coopers_hawk
Great Horned Owl: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl
Golden Eagle: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Golden_Eagle
Bald Eagle: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Golden_Eagle
Wetlands are water saturated lands such as swamps and marshes. At the Nature Center the ponds provide the necessary water for our wetlands. On the far west side of the pond, we see wetlands that seasonally are home to cattails, willows, birds and insects.
Cattails are wetland plants that can reach heights of up to 10 feet and characteristically form a large furry fruiting spike. Cattails prefer shallow flooded conditions and given the right conditions can grow and spread quickly forming dense patches of vegetation and outcompeting other aquatic plants. However, red-winged black birds and hummingbirds use fluff of cattail seeds to line their nests. Cattails can improve water quality by their ability to absorb pollutants in the water.
Sand Bar Willows (also known as Coyote Willow) are found in wetlands. Colorado is home to more than 30 different species of willow where they are a valuable food source for many animals and provide dense nesting habitat for aquatic birds. Willows are also one of the most important host plants for local butterflies and moths. Sand Bar Willow can form new growth from broken off branches, will form a dense root system and act as a good soil binder to stabilize embankments and help prevent erosion of soil.
The Red-winged Blackbird can be found throughout the nature center and is easy to see near the pond due to the male’s distinctive red and yellow shoulder patches. The females and juvenile birds are streaked with brown and beige. The Red-winged blackbird is among our most familiar birds and is commonly found atop cattails and tall grasses. Seeds and insects are its favorite diet.
The Wetlands are also home to many other bird species, butterflies, dragonflies, and aquatic insects. Over 90% of our Colorado wildlife depend upon habitats like wetlands, creeks, streams, and rivers and yet this unique ecosystem only covers just 3% of the land throughout the state!
Cattails: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/48686-Typha Sand Bar/Coyote
Red-Winged Blackbird: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-winged_Blackbird
In addition to being a great environment for plants, mammals, and birds, the ponds are also home to a variety of fish and other aquatic life.
The fish species include Largemouth Bass, Bluegill, and Green Sunfish.,
Other aquatic life includes Painted turtle, Common Snapping Turtle, Virile crayfish, Red-eared Slider Turtle (an invasive introduced species), Boreal Chorus Frog, Northern Leopard Frog and the American Bullfrog (an invasive introduced species).
The most important aquatic species in these ponds often go overlooked – the macroinvertebrates! These boneless creatures include the larvae (a.k.a. babies) of a variety of insects including dragonflies, mayflies, craneflies, midges, and mosquitos, as well as fresh water snails, aquatic sowbugs (think water cousins of the land-loving rolly polly), worms, and diving beetles.
Macroinvertebrates play two key roles in the life of a pond or stream. They are a wonderful indicator of the life of a stream. Since the Macroinvertebrates cannot escape the stream they are a measure of the heath of the ecosystem. Additionally, macroinvertebrates are a primary processor of organic material that enters the aquatic environment. These macroinvertebrates consume living and dead organic material, may be predators other macroinvertebrates as well as serving as food for fish,amphibians, reptiles, aquatic birds and mammals.
All of these diverse species create a rich aquatic ecosystem that is not obvious unless you take the time to observe the ponds.
Largemouth Bass: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/49587-Micropterus-salmoides
Green Sunfish: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/58636-Lepomis-cyanellus
Painted Turtle: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/39771-Chrysemys-picta
Common Snapping Turtle: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/39682-Chelydra-serpentina Virile
Red-Eared Slider: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/51271-Trachemys-scripta-elegans
Boreal Chorus Frog: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/24255-Pseudacris-maculata
Northern Leopard Frog: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/66003-Lithobates-pipiens
American Bullfrog: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/65979-Lithobates-catesbeianus
Mosquitoes: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/52134-Culicidae Freshwater
Aquatic Sowbugs: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/48147-Isopoda
Diving Beetles: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/86218-Acilius