THE TRAIL LESS TRAVELED
This blog entry was provided by Susan M. Longest, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biology at Colorado Mesa University and Chair of Citizen Science for the Grand Valley Audubon Society (GVAS). Owl photo by Mercedes Yeates.
Every fall and spring, groups of Colorado Mesa University students arrive on the Audubon Trail. Many residents know this trail as a nice paved trail for biking, walking, and running, but it is equally unknown to many residents and students, somewhat due to it being nestled behind the Albertson’s parking lot at the entrance to the Redlands. As part of CMU’s Biology 101 General Human Biology Lab, an introductory course designed for students not majoring in Biology, students participate in several field trips to expose them to plants and animals in their local environment, as well as relevant local biological issues.
Regardless of which semester students take the course, the Audubon Trail provides a plethora of opportunities to learn local plant and bird species. Professors use this trail to explain the importance of riparian habitats, which line waterways and provide important habitat for plants and animals that you do not find in drier habitats, such as on top of the Monument. As the class walks along the trail, occasionally hopping out of the way of a bicyclist using the path, professors point out different plants and trees that are native versus invasive, the types of seed dispersal used by different species, and general characteristics to identify each species. The Russian olive tree, for example, is an invasive species that was originally introduced from Russia and other parts of western and central Asia to North America. Because it has outcompeted native riparian plants and trees, it is considered invasive, and it depends on birds to disperse its seeds. By explaining the tales behind the plants, students get a better appreciation for the plants around them, as well as the types of plants that are important in different types of habitats.
Classes like Biology 101 Lab enable all of us to open our eyes to the details around us that we may pass every day without ever thinking about.
Beyond being a great trail for exercise and pointing out riparian plants, there are many bird species one can find in just a short walk along the path. The best time to visit is in the spring because migrating birds are arriving and building nests for the breeding season. In the beginning of the fall, however, many species can still be seen before they migrate south for the winter, and of course, resident birds are reliable as well. A few species that are often found along the trail include robins, house sparrows, starlings, and many LBJs (little brown jobs). If you walk along the water, you may see mallards, wood ducks, swifts, and several species of swallows. The highlight for many during the spring, however, is seeing the great horned owl in her nest with chicks.
This particular female has been returning to her nest for many years. Two years ago, wind knocked one of the three chicks out of the nest, which incited a community effort of wildlife professionals and bird lovers alike to construct a sturdier nest for the owls, and to rehabilitate the injured chick. Usually when I take my students down the trail to see the nest, I pass one or two people along the way who also know of the owl and ask how she is doing.
For the students, many have never seen a great horned owl before, or any owl for that matter. Last year, I brought out a spotting scope to give the students a closer view than that provided by their binoculars. It’s one thing to look at an owl through binoculars, it’s another to feel up close and personal as you see each feather blowing in the wind, and feel her staring straight into your eyes. The students loved it, and I had to take a few looks myself.
As we looked at the female, we could see two chicks in the nest with a third probably tucked further down. There are many attractive animal species in the world. In my own research, I usually manage to study species whose young, if viewed through binoculars, tend to send a shiver down my spine. I won’t say that owl chicks are ugly, but they definitely are unique and share a certain gruff look that one wouldn’t want to mess with. After everyone had a chance to see the owl, we headed back to the van at the trail entrance before heading back to campus.
My hope with every passing semester is that the students realize how much beauty is around them all of the time, not just in the vistas from the Grand Mesa or the Colorado National Monument, but also along the paths they walk every day. I hope that after taking the 101 lab, they see many things with new eyes and their curiosity remains a life-long attribute.
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