Where in the Wild?

6 species you might encounter this summer in the wilderness surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley. By Chadd Drott

Hiking with young children is rarely about the destination. To most kids, getting there, especially quickly, is not the goal. While we adults want to race up steep switchbacks to earn the view, our kids are more likely to sit down in the dirt and marvel at ants. Or stop and pick dandelions.  And gather pretty stones. Rather than pushing children to keep up, we can slow down, hike for the sake of wonder and see what we can find. Look for creatures, great and small. Most are hard to spot. Some announce their presence with song. Others flit in the sunshine begging for attention. Many are mysterious, untamed, and living in nearby forests, meadows and mountains. Where in the wild can we find them?

We asked naturalist Chadd Drott of CHADD‘S Walking with Wildlife to introduce us to several species we may encounter here this summer.

WASATCH MOUNTAIN FOX (Vulpes vulpes macroura)

This red fox is a cunning little critter that has more in common with cats than with dogs. For example, like a cat, it prefers a life of solitude away from packs. Foxes have vertical pupils like a cat. This allows them to see in extremely low light conditions similar to a feline. They have extra-sensitive whiskers to help them feel and sense prey beneath snow and vegetation. They hunt by stalking and then pouncing, which is different from pack techniques involving endurance and over-powering the prey.

The Wasatch Mountain Fox is a subspecies found throughout Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and southern Alberta. You’ll find it in urban and suburban areas throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. It is well-adapted to live near humans. Look for the unique coloration of the Wasatch Mountain variation, which has a predominately reddish/orange coat in the front that lightens to a silver color toward the hind legs. There is a little bit of faded  black around the top of the hind leg. The tail has a distinct white tip and the legs look as if the fox is wearing knee-high black socks.

  • Tod: male fox, up to 30 pounds
  • Vixen: female fox, up to 25 pounds
  • Kit: juvenile fox
  • Leash: a group of foxes
Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni)

Do you know that the  largest elk population anywhere in the world is here in Colorado (280,000)? The largest herd is right here in the nearby Flat Tops Wilderness area, with an estimated 39,000. By 1910, local elk were nearly eliminated because of over-hunting by settlers. Only an estimated 500 to 1,000 elk remained. This began to change between 1912 to 1928 when 350 elk were transplanted to Colorado from Jackson, Wyoming. Strict hunting regulations were implemented, and the population has exploded.

You can find herds of elk throughout our nearby forests. The best times to see them are during dawn and dusk hours. In warm summer months they prefer higher elevations in dark timber and mountain meadows, while during winter months they migrate to lower elevations to find food.

Look for dark chocolate-brown fur covering the elk’s head, nape, neck, shoulders and legs. From there, the fur changes to a beautiful sandy tan color stretching to the rear side of the hind legs. Finally, the elk’s rump is a soft cream-colored white that makes spotting the animal easier from greater distances. The male’s antlers are absent during winter and early spring months, so to tell the difference between a male and female, look at size and coloring. The male is larger and more colorful, gaining a golden hue to their fur, while females stay a sandy tan color.

  • Bull = male elk, up to 700 pounds
  • Cow = female elk, up to 500 pounds
  • Calf = juvenile elk
  • Herd = group of elk
  • Harem = a group of cows herded together by a dominant bull during the mating season
  • Satellite Bulls = smaller bulls often seen circling harems with movements similar to a satellite in orbit

Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)

There is not a bird living in the vast open ranges of the United States that has a more beautiful or recognizable song than the Western Meadowlark. Many bird enthusiasts say that their song announces the arrival of spring. It is found throughout the Roaring Fork Valley in grasslands and sage brush, in both rural and urban areas.

The Western Meadowlark is not an actual lark, but rather a species of blackbird. Like  other blackbirds, it has a unique and identifiable call, sometimes compared with a flute. It varies by individual bird, but in general for the majority of males, the songs last about 2 to 4 seconds. Many songs start with a sharp quick note that is immediately followed by a descending note, and then four ascending notes and finally finished with another descending note that is drawn out slightly longer than the rest of the song. Although the calls may sound the same to our ears, they are actually unique to each mating pair.

These birds are well-camouflaged for their environment with speckled white and brown coloring on their head, wings, upper body and tail. The chest turns a bright vibrant yellow during spring and summer, and has a jet black V across the chest that looks like it is wearing a necklace. (photo: Chadd Drott.)

  • Size: 6 to 10 inches
  • Weight: 3 to 4 ounces
  • Wingspan: 16 inches
Shiras Moose (Alces alces shirasi)

Moose are the largest member of the deer family, and are also the least communal of deer. There are four subspecies here in North America with our resident Shiras species being the smallest of the four.

Moose are not native to Colorado. They were introduced in Colorado between the late 1970s and early 80s in Walden, Colorado with small populations established in prime habitat areas. Today, moose populations are managed by moving a few individuals from well-established areas into new locations of the state that are absent of moose. The relatively recent sightings of moose in the Roaring Fork Valley are from a group that has spread here from the Grand Mesa. As the population on Grand Mesa grows and territories are established, younger moose are forced to travel farther distances to establish their own territories and to find a mate.

Unlike other members of the deer family, moose are predominately dark in color. Both males and females have dark brown fur that appears black at a distance or in shadows. When sunshine hits the fur, it highlights it into a beautiful light brown color. The legs are greyish-to-white in color. Males and females do not vary in coloration, so they are one of the hardest animals to gender during the winter months.

Because the moose is a member of the deer family, they too grow antlers instead of horns – the largest antlers of any animal in the world. Our local Shiras Moose grows the smallest set of  moose antlers in North America.

  • Bull: male, up to 1400 pounds
  • Cow: female, up to 1200 pounds
  • Calf: juvenile, up to 600 pounds
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis)

You can always recognize a bighorn sheep because of their distinct, curling horns. Unlike elk and moose, sheep grow a set of horns instead of antlers. Horns do not shed annually like antlers do, and in fact continually grow for the animal’s entire life. Just like a tree, horns develop growth rings as they go through seasonal changes. The horns of male Bighorn Sheep curl and can block the animal’s view, so in areas where predators are present they purposefully break the tips off so they can see their surroundings. In areas where no predators are present, they will allow their horns to continue growing without breaking off the tips.

The best place to spot a large herd of bighorn sheep is in Glenwood Canyon – right off of the bike path along I-70 between Yampah Hot Springs and the pedestrian bridge by the first tunnel in the canyon. Another common sighting area is in the Lake Christine Wilderness Area above Basalt, where you can often see them grazing above Frying Pan River Road.

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep are the largest and most common subspecies of bighorn sheep in North America. However, they were nearly eliminated from this area in the early 1900s because of unregulated hunting and diseases introduced by livestock. Due to strict protection measures and large reintroduction efforts, the state’s population is the largest anywhere in the species’ range, and is estimated to be over 7,000 individuals.

  • Ram: male, up to 300 pounds
  • Ewe: female, up to 200 pounds
  • Lamb: juvenile
  • Herd: local groups sometimes include over 100 members
Dragonfly (Anisoptera)

Dragonflies have long, slender bodies with four wings and very large eyes. You can spot their vivid hues zipping around in the sunlight anywhere there is water. They live in low valleys and at higher elevations.

While they are small and harmless to us, dragonflies are actually considered to be the most successful hunter in the entire animal kingdom. A recent Harvard study found them to have a 95% success rate over hundreds of hunts. Their prey? They are the number one predator of the mosquito. A single dragonfly will eat hundreds of mosquitoes in a 24 hour period, which makes them important to the environment and to our health.

Dragonflies have been evolving for 300 million years, almost as long as sharks. They were one of the first flying insects on Earth. Their evolutionary progress has allowed them to master the art of flying. They are able to defy the laws of physics with their style of flight, and are currently being studied by both civil and military engineers who are trying to build crafts to mimic their flight characteristics. (photo: Chadd Drott)

  • Male: Largest U.S. species = up to 6 inches
  • Female: Largest U.S. species = up to 5 inches
What if you spot one of these Wild Creatures?

Be still.  Be quiet. Watch and listen. Keep your distance. Never feed them. Be careful not to leave behind food or litter that could encourage them to approach us.  We share our wild places with countless species who will do us no harm if left alone. Their ability to thrive depends on our good stewardship of their habitat. Meanwhile, their ability to remain wild depends on our reverence and respect.

written by Chadd Drott of Chadd’s Walking With Wildlife