I've always remarked that getting to know the names of plants and animals is a good thing. Not just for the mere knowledge, but for the fact that no matter where you're at in the field or forest, you'll never feel alone if you only take the time to get to know the names of the resident flora and fauna.
Indeed, I'll soon be visiting a few old feathered friends, and others, that I've come to know quite well over the past dozen years. The Colorado Rockies is a place I can now say I visit often, albeit in just a small area of this vast and extraordinary setting that stretches some 3,000 miles from British Columbia to New Mexico.
Where I visit the Rocky Mountains is within the Routt and Arapaho national forests in northwestern Colorado, two-plus hours northwest of Denver.
Over the years I've seen many new species of plants and animals in this remarkable place in North America, with the most notable among them being a host of megafauna such as mountain lion, elk, mule deer, Shiras moose, pronghorn antelope, and Colorado's state mammal the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
Smaller mammals, too (although not necessarily new species), include the charming least chipmunk and the ever-present pine squirrel, which is similar to our own red squirrel, though darker colored and much less reddish.
Other mammals include the pika and prairie dog, both of which require very specific environs. I'm especially drawn to the pika. This small six-inch, six-ounce furry mammal with large oval ears looks like a hamster but is a member of the rabbit family. Vocal and always busy, the pika is more often heard than seen in its high-altitude preferred habitat of rocky faces and talus slopes.
Trees, too, are something to behold. The enormous and stately Douglas fir tree that typically grows on north-facing slopes is worth stopping to gape at, to touch the rough and thick reddish bark, and to sit beneath and lean against and relax.
Other unique conifers include the lodge pole and ponderosa pine trees and, Colorado's state tree, the Colorado blue spruce. Few trees in a mountainous forested scene are as beautiful and breathtaking as a full grown Colorado blue spruce.
Another plant that I so appreciate, especially its sweet and aromatic scent, is sagebrush. This plant, growing everywhere and most especially on south-facing slopes where trees are few and sunlight is harsh, represents what people often imagine when thinking about the scenic and wild Old West. I've come to learn, for example, that this common plant is anything but ordinary - sagebrush represents essential food and cover for wildlife of all kinds.
And then there are the avian creatures; those that fly about, follow me around from time to time, and squawk, sing, and emit other calls that at first were foreign looking and sounding. Nowadays, however, I know them all, have learned many of their habits, and can identify their subtle call-notes, even their distinctive sounding wing-beats.
This motley collection of resident birds that we Minnesotans never observe here at home include the dusky grouse (sometimes called blue grouse), Steller's jay, Clark's nutcracker, mountain chickadee, and Townsend's solitaire. These "fabulous five" I've enjoyed getting to know immensely.
Yet familiar feather friends do exist in the Rocky Mountains. These include the American crow and common raven, gray jay, bald eagle, downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, and, surprisingly, the wild turkey. No doubt many other well-known birds call the Rocky Mountains home in the summertime, too, but my visits have always been in late September to late October, and is a time of year when many species of songbirds have already migrated further south.
I'm looking most forward to saying hello again to the Clark's nutcracker. This species of bird that's related to crows, ravens, and jays, is among the most quintessential Rocky Mountain resident bird. Their amazing habits of caching pine nuts everywhere throughout the mountains are an important component of pine tree distribution and abundance. Clark's nutcrackers cannot possibly remember all the places they hide their precious stashes, and so these cached pine seeds often germinate and perpetuate.
Friends of all kinds can be everywhere where you find them. Truly, once formally introduced, a bond soon develops and we're never alone as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.