Northern Pocket Gopher

Wonderful natural things I saw today:    1.  Pronghorn in town on my walk home.  A beautiful momma snorted at me and flared her white rump patches because I was watching her twins.  2.  Various flocks of starlings, robins and grackles flying busily through the neighborhoods.  3.  A white-breasted nuthatch on the cottonwood out front, like the one that wintered here.  Could it be that the same one has returned?

Wonderful natural thing I did not see today or this year, but should have:  Northern pocket gopher, Thomomys talpoides.  I saw this crazy looking animal busily digging a tunnel in an open meadow in the National Forest east of Laramie last year, and I watched all summer to see one again, but no luck.  He’s such a funny creature, that I felt he deserved a blog, even though he didn’t show his whiskered face to me this year.

These guys do not hibernate, but tunnel under the snow during the winter, sometimes caching food from the growing season to make it through the bleak months.  Wikipedia states:  ” A special note about the Northern Pocket Gopher is that it rarely appears above ground; when it does, it rarely ventures more than 2.5 feet from a burrow entrance. Underground, however, they often have tunnels that extend hundreds of feet where they live, store food and mate.”  I felt lucky to watch this guy dig his tunnel last year, especially because it is the only time I ever saw one!

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Posted by on September 13, 2012 in Nature


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It’s a Mystery

I spent quite some time this afternoon watching a flock of birds swoop to and from the trees of a local city park.  They were very busy–I thought flying after insects–and returning to large conifers to perch for short periods of time.  Even with photo evidence, though, I cannot tell what type of birds these are.

One possibility is that they are olive-sided flycatchers, Contopus cooperi, because of the grey and white markings on the chest that look like a vest and their enjoyment of perching on the top of trees.  But the bill might not be large enough.

And then there’s that yellowish belly.

I thought these might be the western wood-peewees that I saw the other day (if that ID was even correct!), but these birds don’t seem to have the exact same coloring and seem to lack a crest.   Wood-peewees are described as somewhat unsocial and today’s group was definitely a flock.

They could be willow flycatchers, Empidonax trallii.  Or western kingbirds, Tyrannus verticalis.

As you can see, I’m at a loss.  If anyone can identify these birds from these photos, I would be very interested and grateful!

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Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Nature


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One of the last autumn wildflowers left standing is the tough cookie yarrow, Achillea millefolium.  I wish it were a cookie, because then I would eat it, yum yum.  As it is, I don’t put crazy plants in my mouth.

This plant is sometimes called common yarrow or western yarrow, but as there are several subspecies it may be difficult to determine between them.  One variety is still hanging on in my back yard, with its ferny leaves and numerous white (sometimes pinkish) ray flower with yellowish central disks.

This wildflower grows throughout the U.S. (it can be found in every state) in a wide range of environments and elevations from spring through fall.  In Wyoming, it can be found anywhere from 4,600 to 11,000 feet (according to the U.S. Forest Service).  Incidentally, the lowest point in Wyoming is the Belle Fourche River near the South Dakota border, at 3,101 feet, and the highest is Gannett Peak in the west at 13,809 feet.  So yarrow fills most of Wyoming nicely.

It’s good to have such a consistent friend, even if it does lack tasty snack potential.  You could use it as a poultice to staunch a bloody wound, though, so, bonus points there.

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Posted by on September 11, 2012 in Nature


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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatches, Sitta canadensis, are passing through town, making their presence known with their loud duck-turned-songbird noise. describes this call as a “nasal yank-yank-yank song”, but listen for yourself to deside whether ir sounds like a yank, a quack or a haaak.

These guys are related to the white-breasted nuthatches that spent the winter around my house and the pygmy nuthatches that I encountered in early spring, and are about in between those other two species in size.

Though I have been familiar with these guys for years, and feel confident in my identification more so than many other species (they have a red breast, as the name suggests, and a dark eye stripe), I have yet to be able to get a decent photo of them.  They are quick — always on the move and often upside down — are aren’t very interested in posing.

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Posted by on September 10, 2012 in Nature


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Subalpine Gumweed

Despite the late summer warmth, not much is left blooming around Laramie this time of year.  One exception is the subalpine gumweed, Grindelia subalpina, which is still looking quite robust in the wilder parts of town.

The name subapline gumweed is yet another example of stupid common names, because it grows all the way down to the plains, so the subalpine part isn’t very accurate!  Laramie, even at 7200 feet, doesn’t quite reach subalpine heights.  

Curlycup gumweed, Grindelia squarrosa, is another similar-looking species of gumweed that grows in the area (and throughout the U.S.).  Both species are native, favor dry areas, and bloom well into September.  The main way to tell G. subalpina from G. squarrosa is by the leaves.  The website Eastern Colorado Wildflowers states “Teeth on leaves of G. subalpina are spaced further apart, are pointed and point outwards from the margin. Teeth on G. squarrosa are close together, somewhat rounded and point toward the leaf tip.” adds, “Subalpine Gumweed’s base of the leaf tapers toward the point of attachment on the stalk, forming a petiole-like structure. Curlycup Gumweed leaves are stemless, oblong in shape & clasping the stem.”

Subalpine gumweed can also be called mountain gumweed, stickyhead or just plain gumweed.  By those names, you can probably tell that some part of this plant is viscous (the bracts are sticky with resinous glands).  G. subalpina can be found only in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

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Posted by on September 9, 2012 in Nature


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American Coot

Also noted at Meerboer Lake west of Laramie yesterday:  a plucked goose.  That’s what I thought this little guy looked like.  I kept saying what is that?  That’s one funky bird.  Thankfully, he let me take his picture, which allowed me to match him up on the internet with other photos of juvenile American coots, Fulica americana.

I have seen coots at various times in the past, and there were several adults at Meerboer Lake (athough this little guy was not close to any of them, making him even harder to identify), but I had never before seen one in this in-between, gray, almost bald-looking phase.  The adults are dark gray to black with a large white beak.



I’ve always liked coots for their ugly charm.  They retain a bit of the dinosaur about them, and their feet are super cool.  Their glangly legs and toes look like skeleton bones, and instead of webs, they have folded lobes that lets them be at home on water or land, though they do look rather awkward out of the water.  Coots are not related to ducks but to rails.



The chicks, which I have never yet had the chance to see, are supposedly even weirder looking, with bald bits and orange fluff.  Check out 10000 Bird’s amusing post on ugly babies.

I have also encountered coots on the east coast of South Carolina.  Those guys were nice enough to let me get a closeup photo to show the red eyes and upper beak.  Must be that Southern hospitality.

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Posted by on September 8, 2012 in Nature


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Northern Shoveler

Since I was so pleased with my wigeon sighting, I decided to drive out to the lakes west of Laramie to see which other waterbirds were around. While admiring the gorgeous fall colors,I saw a couple of mallardy-looking ducks who on closer inspection appeared to have gigantic bills.  The birds were, I think, northern shovelers, Anas clypeata.

Shovelers appear to be aptly named, since their large bills, wider at the tip than at the base, could be mistaken for gardening instruments. says this species uses “the comb-like teeth along the edges of its large bill to strain aquatic animals, plants, and seeds from the water.”   Because of this adaptation, they are less likely to tip up; they instead skim the water closer to the surface to feed.  See the photo to the right for an example of their skimming technique — no duck bottoms in sight!


Other names for this bird are spoonbill duck, smiling mallard, spoony, and poor-man’s mallard.  ADW reports that they are sometimes even called the neighbor’s mallard becuase hunters will gift them–rather than the reportedly tastier mallards–to their neighbors.

These birds are related to the cinnamon teal that I saw in the spring, and like the teal, the males dress in plainclothes until February.  A. clypeata males then get a glossy green head, snappy black bill, and white and chestnut sides.

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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Nature


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