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Monthly Nature Almanac
Hike of the Month - Flagstaff Summit
Once the big iron gate closes for the season (October 30), the connecting road up to Flagstaff Summit becomes a place of peace and serenity. Gone are the summer hordes, the traffic, the wedding parties at the Sunrise Amphitheater. The Summit takes a breather and regroups as winter approaches. If you also feel the need for a breather in November, this is the place to come. There are many hiking opportunities around the summit: the Ute, Boy Scout, Tenderfoot and Chapman trails not to mention the Sensory Trail where you can explore nature without using your eyes. Every snowstorm converts the summit road and parking areas into a marvelous cross-country ski experience with gentle grades, no cars, and lots of beauty. Animals also enjoy the serenity, so keep your eyes open for foxes, coyotes and with luck, maybe a wild turkey!
A "Fluff" Class
Have you ever noticed a cold bird or mammal "fluffing up" to keep warm? Fluffing fur or feathers creates an insulating layer of dead air space between the animal's warm skin and the cold outside air. Tiny muscles attached to the base of each feather or hair tug it into an upright position.
Some animals also make nests of fluffy material for the same reason: curling up in a dense ball of dead grass, leaves or scavenged fur provides insulation.
Other animals prefer the natural fluffiness of snow to stay warm. Dead air spaces between individual ice crystals in the snow pack provide excellent insulation. Ptarmigans, grouse-like birds of the high mountains, actually burrow into the snow for warmth. Mice and pocket gophers tunnel under the snow during the winter, keeping warm and hiding from predators in this "subnivean" world.
Animals may also fluff their fur or feathers when they are frightened, trying to intimidate a potential attacker by looking bigger and fiercer. You may have seen a dog lift its hackles or a cat puff up its tail to warn away intruders.
Can humans fluff? Of course! But we call it getting the goose bumps. When we are cold or afraid, our body tries to make our hair stand up -- just like a fluffed squirrel or chickadee -- but our species has lost most of its thick fur. All that remains are the tell-tale bumps at the base of each hair follicle where tiny muscles still struggle in vain to raise our hackles or puff up a thick layer of insulation.
Batten Down the Hatches!
Winter is a hard season for trees, and they have to prepare well in advance if they are to survive. A sudden snap of intense, bitter cold can kill trees that have not had sufficient time to get ready.
Phytochromes are light-sensitive pigments in a tree's leaves or needles. By sensing the lengthening nights as winter approaches, the phytochromes act as a chemical alarm clock that tells trees to winterize. This chemical signal starts a process called hardening. The tree begins to move water out of its cells, increasing the concentration of salts and sugars in its tissues and making them more resistant to freezing. (We use this chemical process when we spread salt on our icy sidewalks. When salt mixes with water, it lowers the freezing temperature.)
Although water in the form of snow is plentiful, it is mostly locked up in ice crystals and is unavailable to thirsty roots. Microscopic pores on the surface of leaves let water vapor escape, drying out the tree. As nights become longer and cooler, deciduous trees conserve water by dropping their leaves. Sap and moisture in the tree's tissues move down to the roots where they can better resist freezing. Stripped of its leaves, the tree also presents a much smaller surface for snow loading. The weight of a heavy snowfall can tear off branches!
Conifers, such as ponderosa pines or douglas firs, don't lose their leaves. Pine needles are coated with a waxy layer that acts like a zip-lock to keep moisture in. The needles are also long and finely-shaped, discouraging the build up of heavy snow. The conical shape of many conifers tends to shed snow: flexible upper branches intercept the snow and keep it from piling up on lower, more breakable branches.
Are We Buggin' You?
Box Elder bugs are a common swarming insect in fall. These small, pointy little red and black insects are truly “bugs” (Order Hemiptera). Box elder bugs may congregate around your home on sunny walls or woodpiles, trying to warm up. Some may manage to infiltrate your house! Don’t be alarmed; they are quite harmless and do not bite, sting or carry disease. Gently help them find their way back outside.
Box elder bugs congregate around box elder and maple trees. In spring, the bugs emerge from their winter hiding places and lay eggs that hatch into tiny bright red nymphs (juvenile insects). Although the bugs feed on maple trees, they do very little damage and are not serious pests. Their bright red and black coloring advertises their bad taste: most animals won't eat them!
A Truly American Bird
OSMP is home to flocks of Wild Turkeys which may be descended from game birds released during the 1930s and 40s. As families in the United States sit down to their traditional Thanksgiving meal, it's worth reflecting on this remarkable bird, which would have been our national bird had Benjamin Franklin had his way. In a letter to his daughter, Franklin compared the Bald Eagle and Wild Turkey thus:
For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
Turkeys were domesticated by North American Indians centuries before the arrival of Europeans. They figure prominently in Native American art from the Southwest and Mesoamerica, where both their meat and feathers were prized. When Europeans "discovered" the turkey in the early 1500s, it was first introduced to Spain and gradually made its way to northern Europe via the Balkans. Since the English learned of this bird from the Turks, they named it the "Turkey cock," assuming it to be Middle Eastern. European settlers brought domestic turkeys with them to the Americas and were surprised to find their wild cousins already established in the "new land."
Wild Turkeys are smart, fast and difficult to observe. They are more often heard than seen, despite traveling in large flocks during the fall and aggressively challenging rivals in spring and summer. Wild Turkeys frequent the dense forested slopes of Green Mountain and back of Flagstaff Mountain. Hike the Tenderfoot-Chapman loop in May and listen for the tell-tale gobbling call; or walk off that Thanksgiving meal and -- with luck -- spot a flock of these regal and elusive birds.
The Last Word
Only to the White man was nature a "wilderness" and only to him was the land "infested" with "wild" animals and "savage" people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.
- Luther Standing Bear, Chief of the Oglala Tribe of the Sioux Nation from Land of the Spotted Eagle