Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sinton Pond Open Space

Wetlands here in El Paso County, Colorado are few and far between. Consequently, a handful of artificial lakes have been created for recreation and wildlife. One of the more interesting of these is Sinton Pond Open Space in Colorado Springs

At only thirteen acres, the property actually consists of two ponds. The larger, an impoundment of a natural spring, is full of small freshwater sunfish, and possibly other species as well. Above the big pond is a smaller one, likewise with a few fish, but with more emergent vegetation and better shaded by large cottonwood trees. Here’s a view of that smaller pond. The property abuts Sinton Dairy, which is what you see in the background.

Sinton Pond is pretty much surrounded by industrial enterprises and at least one office park , yet it is a magnet for birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. You also get a nice view of Pikes Peak during the winter months when foliage on the cottonwoods doesn’t hide the mountain.

Since I could find next to nothing on the history of Sinton Pond, I’ll concentrate on the diversity of animal life you can find there. Birdwatchers won’t be disappointed as there are many birds that utilize the pond and the surrounding landscape for feeding and nesting. We found this family of Mallard ducks on one trip there.

With the help of a crow or raven I managed to spy a Great Horned Owl on my most recent visit. One of my scenic shots has a falcon in the distance, too….

Reptiles and amphibians are pretty prolific, too. I nearly stepped on this Western Terrestrial Garter Snake as it sunned beside the trail near Monument Creek, which flows right by the pond.

Both the native Painted Turtle and the non-native Red-eared Slider can be seen basking on logs or other debris in the big pond, especially in the morning.

I was thrilled to find a Northern Leopard Frog on my latest trip, seeking refuge from the hot sun beneath a tangle of brush along the margin of the big pond. Leopard frogs have not fared very well because of drought and the increasing populations of the Bullfrog.

Naturally, I am looking mostly for insects, and there is no shortage. Many butterflies find abundant flower nectar and larval foodplants in the area. I was surprised to find a Questionmark butterfly on June 8, and even more surprised to find it was still there as of July 20! I was downright shocked to glimpse a Giant Swallowtail, also on June 8, though I don’t have a picture to prove it.

The Monarch finds plenty of milkweed here, and a variety of skippers can be seen on almost any visit. There are open areas of varying quality in terms of vegetation, and shady groves of spruce and other trees, and different butterflies prefer different degrees of sun and cover.

Any wetland is likely to attract dragonflies and damselflies, and there is indeed a good variety of odonates here. Big darners (family Aeschnidae) are constantly on the wing, while skimmers (family Libellulidae) of all sorts perch and patrol the shore and adjacent fields. Vivid Dancers, bluets, and forktail damselflies can be found by the score.

I recommend Sinton Pond Open Space to both residents of Colorado Springs and visitors as a place to enjoy hiking, walking, biking, fishing, or just plain relaxing. The site gets a fair amount of traffic (no pun intended, despite the fact that Interstate 25 is about one block to the west and a major rail line about a block to the south), but it is still a relatively quiet place for contemplation and peaceful enjoyment.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Spider Sunday (via "Bug Eric"): Stovetop Spider

Talk about a sense of misplaced. I was making a sandwich for lunch the other day when I was abruptly distracted by an arachnid on the stove. It was mildly startling, but my first thought was “What is that?” My first suspect was a running crab spider in the genus Thanatus, but something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t have my reading glasses handy, so naturally I reached for my camera.

I snapped an image, zoomed in on it, and knew immediately that this was a lynx spider in the family Oxyopidae, genus Oxyopes. The battery of long spines on each leg helps differentiate lynx spiders from similar-looking spiders in other families. So does the arrangement of the eyes. How this one got inside I have no idea, though I remember seeing one right outside the back door last fall….

Unless this specimen represents a new species, or a significant range extension for a known one, then it must be the Western Lynx Spider, Oxyopes scalaris. They very grizzled (mottled gray) appearance is one in a dizzying array of color patterns exhibited by this species, which ranges from southern Canada to Mexico, and coast to coast. It is most common in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coast states. It is downright scarce in the Great Plains, perhaps owing to its preference for woody shrubs and trees.

The Western Lynx Spider is not terribly large, mature females measuring 5.8-9.6 millimeters in body length. Males range from 4.7-6.1 millimeters.

In some parts of its range, O. scalaris can be found principally in pine trees in pinyon-juniper woodlands. Elsewhere, it is associated with sagebrush habitat, chaparral, or deciduous forests. Mine may be the first specimen recorded on a burner, and it was kind of scary how well it blended in with the rust spots.

The Western Lynx Spider is an ambush hunter, sitting patiently on stems or leaves and waiting for potential prey to come within striking range. Despite their small size, the spider’s eyes are very adept at detecting motion, and most insects that venture near don’t stand a chance against the arachnid’s lightning-fast reflexes. The hapless victim is quickly seized by the spider’s first two pairs of legs. Those long spines help ensure there is no escape. At night, the spiders protect themselves from their own predators by suspending themselves from foliage on a silken line, snoozing in mid-air.

The life cycle of this species is fairly well known, but there is little about it that is spectacular. Mating is a brief affair lasting only a few seconds. Records of egg cases are uncommon, but one sac contained 45 embryos. The egg sac is produced in early to mid-summer, securely fastened to a plant, and is guarded by the female until the spiderlings hatch. This species overwinters in older immature stages.

Clearly, my kitchen-inhabiting spider was outside of its comfort zone, not at home, home on the (Radar) range. I bottled it in a vial and released it a day later in a nearby field filled with grasses, yucca, and scattered elm trees. I sincerely hope it feels more comfortable there, secures regular meals, and reproduces.

Sources: Brady, Allen R. 1964. “The Lynx Spiders of North America North of Mexico (Araneae; Oxyopidae),” Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 131(13): 429-518.
Cutler, B., D.T. Jennings, and M.J. Moody. 1977. “Biology and Habitats of the Lynx Spider Oxyopes scalaris (Araneae: Oxyopidae),” Ent. News 88: 87-97.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Conserving Creation

One of my posts awhile back was lamenting the conspicuous absence of the “church” in advocating environmental conservation and protection of endangered species. It seems only fair that if I complain I also offer a potential solution. Perhaps a new, faith-based conservation organization is in order, or at least a non-profit that works to hold religious institutions accountable for their role in supporting or undermining The Creation.

To that end I propose the following mission and goals for churches when it comes to these issues:

Mission: Hold religious institutions accountable for their actions (or lack thereof) that impact the natural environment and the other creatures that inhabit the world.
  • Recognize that as children of God, humans are endowed with the responsibility to protect, conserve, and manage the remainder of the animal kingdom (and plant kingdom) in a manner consistent with the desires of the Creator. Noah may have been the first wildlife conservationist, and he may be seen as a role model for the church’s approach to modern wildlife conservation.
  • Include in worship services prayers for the healing of the environment in the aftermath of human-initiated ecological disasters (oil spills, deforestation, slaughter of endangered species, etc). It would not hurt to make it routine to simply pray for the welfare of all non-human animals and their habitats.
  • Make ecological sustainability an overriding priority in all missions, both foreign and domestic. Aid to the poor should include lessons in sustainable practices, especially in regards to agriculture.
  • Church grounds shall reflect respect for nature and an enhancement of native habitats whenever possible. This means planting native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers, providing nest boxes for breeding birds, and limiting the amount of acreage devoted to lawns. Community gardens, when on church grounds, shall be managed with limited use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Community service projects shall include clean-up and maintenance of local parks, waterways, and other areas critical to native wildlife and plants.
  • Teaching of Creationism shall include modern stories of wildlife conservation to illustrate the ongoing need to be responsible stewards of the planet Earth.
  • Church congregations shall be encouraged to donate to conservation and environmental organizations.
  • Sermons based on the accomplishments and philosophies of Noah, St. Francis, and other notable religious conservationists should be incorporated into worship schedules whenever appropriate and possible.
  • Strive to reach out to scientists who may be schooled in the teachings of evolution, but who share a commitment to creating a healthier planet Earth through wildlife conservation and sustainable energy, agriculture, and environmental policies. Cooperation, not conflict, should be the order of the day. Science and religion have complementary roles here.

Scientists, for their part, should recognize the power of the Church to mobilize their congregations. Creationists could be, and should be, powerful allies in creating an ecologically-sustainable future for mankind. This will not happen as long as arguments rage over how Creation came to be. We can agree to disagree, but we must share responsibility in mitigating the continuing degradation of Eden.

One final thought: I would be all in favor of requiring a course in world religion for all high school students. It might go a long way toward correcting stereotypes, and fostering a better understanding and respect for the belief systems of others. Such a curriculum would also be the place for discussing Creation tenets.

I welcome your comments, opinions, ideas, and input about the above. I am only one mind, and I have surely overlooked something important here. I am also a novice when it comes to the Bible and all other things religious. Please forgive any inadvertently disrespectful rhetoric. I assure you that I hold everyone in equal contempt. I mean “esteem.”