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Clear Creek Again…Avocets and Muskrats

May 2, 2016
Avocets on Clear Creek near Kipling Blvd

Avocets on Clear Creek near Kipling Blvd


Undoubtedly one of the better photos I’ve ever taken.

For those of you who are photographers, this photo of American Avocets, truly elegant birds, was taken with a little “point and shoot” Lumix camera with its Leica lens using the zoom. There they were the two of them, concentrating and busy sticking their long beaks into the mud to pull up many a treat. They seemed oblivious to the cars zooming by just a few feet away on Kipling I watched them for about ten minutes . Nor did my presence bother them much. Such a treat to watch them go about their daily routine for a short while.

The photos were taken today on a walk along Clear Creek from Anderson Park in Wheatridge to Kipling Blvd on a splendid early May day with nature here just starting to come alive. The site is downstream from where I was about ten miles, gold was first discovered in Colorado in 1859 triggering a flood of gold seekers – some 30,000 in the next year alone. About five miles from home in northwest Denver, the stretch of the creek I keep coming back to is a stunning place in all seasons. I suppose that having been big city born and raised, even at the age of 71, I cannot get over the excitement of seeing living things in their natural state – a couple of weeks ago along the same creek path, my first beaver ever – what a thrill, and now, today, avocets and muskrats. Now with Spring finally coming out in full bloom, or starting to, it is filled with activity.

Mosca CO Sept 2006 25

John McCamant in his experimental quinoa field

Although they are somewhat common in these parts, I had seem avocets exactly once before in my life and it was as exciting then as today. It had to have been 30 years ago on a trip with Nancy and the girls to the Sand Dunes National Monument. It had rained the day before leaving a series of sizable puddles, some almost the size of ponds on the side of the road. We were just east of Mosca, close to where our recently deceased friend and D.U. colleague, had his organic quinoa farm when I spotted several avocets feeding in a puddle beside the road. I stopped and took a picture.

Avocets – according to Kaufman’s Field Guide to Birds of North America (2000 edition) there are several varieties, the ones shown above are easily recognizable as American avocets. They range mostly along both sides of the spin of the Rocky Mountains from S. Canada on into the southern regions of New Mexico, the range extends westward through the Rockies to southern Idaho and the northern reaches of California. They are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

The description is as follows:

“Wading in shallow marshes and lakes, the avocet sweeps its bill from side to side, with the tip just below the water’s surface. Small groups nest on open flats near the water, laying their eggs on bare open soil, and protest loudly if intruders approach. Blue-gray legs, upcurved bill (more strongly in the female. Bold black-and-white pattern on back and wings. Head and neck pale cinnamon in summer, gray in winter.”

They often feed while leaning forward, with the tips of their bills in the water and slightly open, filtering tiny food items from just below the surface. Sometimes a flock will feed this way in unison, walking forward, swinging their heads rhythmically from side to side. Interesting how their color changes with the seasons, these shown obviously already wearing their summer colors.

Another website adds more detail:

A female American Avocet may lay one to four eggs in the nest of another female, who then incubates the eggs. American Avocets may parasitize other species’ nests too; single American Avocet eggs have been found in the nests of Mew Gulls. Other species may also parasitize avocet nests. Avocets have incubated mixed clutches of their own eggs and those of Common Terns or Black-necked Stilts. The avocets reared the stilt hatchlings as if they were their own.

The oldest one ever found was estimated at fifteen years of age. They aggressively protect their young if attacked.


Clear Creek Muskrat

Clear Creek Muskrat

And then there were muskrats. Never saw one of them up close either. In fact there were, for a short moment, two of them. They did greet one another in a particularly friendly manner; in fact they seemed to go at one another for a moment before one of them retreated. I wasn’t fast enough to get that picture but look at this one: if I’m looking at him, he’s looking right back at me, like the avocets, not in the least intimidated.

He (or she – I really don’t know) seemed to be having a fine time, diving deep in the water, coming back up again, sitting on the bank for a moment and then going at it again. I didn’t get the feeling he was looking for food – just enjoying a fine spring day as I was.

I know less about muskrats than I do about avocets. Not saying much huh? But now there is Wikipedia! And it gives wonderful details. I enjoy after seeing something out in Nature (I won’t call it “the wilds”) – looking up some info on what it is I have seen. The goal is NOT to try to become expert on birds, muskrats or the mamma bear and cub we say a couple of summers ago – I’ll leave that to others – it is more simply to get acquainted with other living things, to see how they are faring. So the basics on muskrats a la Wikipedia:

The muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), the only species in genusOndatra and tribe Ondatrini, is a medium-sized semiaquaticrodent native to North America, and is an introduced species in parts of Europe, Asia, and South America. The muskrat is found in wetlands over a wide range of climates and habitats. It has important effects on the ecology of wetlands[2] and is a resource of food and fur for humans.

The muskrat is the largest species in the subfamily Arvicolinae, which includes 142 other species of rodents, mostly voles and lemmings. Muskrats are referred to as “rats” in a general sense because they are medium-sized rodents with an adaptable lifestyle and an omnivorous diet. They are not, however, so-called “true rats”, that is, members of the genus Rattus.

Unfortunately Colorado muskrats are having a rough time of it. According Rocky Mountain National Park officials quoted in the Denver Post, just last summer, in 2015,  a dead muskrat was found at the Park’s Lily Lake area: it tested positive for tularemia. Tularemia is. A naturally occurring bacterial disease transmitted by infected insects and ticks to rabbits, hares, muskrats, beavers and other small rodents, tularemia can also spread to humans and can cause serious clinical symptoms. It also was reported in 11 people a year ago exactly at this time. There were also more cases reported in humans the year prior. At least from what I have been able to research, there are no reports of it this year as of yet.

On a more positive note, there are several wonderful song entitled Muskrat Ramble. An earlier rendition was done by the Bob Cats, a 1940s Dixieland Jazz band. Here it is. It was also performed by the McGuire Sisters and Louie Armstrong. But there is another song about muskrats, quite different, performed by Willis Alan Ramsey that is very nice, Muskrat Love. Here it is. A few years ago, Ramsey turned up at a concert at the Swallow Hill Music Hall and was asked on stage to sing a few numbers, which he did. He lives not far from Denver, in Loveland, Colorado, at least he did at the time.





One Comment leave one →
  1. William watts permalink
    May 25, 2016 5:22 pm


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