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Gentians, bugling elk signal end of summer

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By Sylvia Brockner

Reprinted from Aug. 3, 2011

The full rich days of August bring the flowering of fringed gentians, the departure of some summer birds and gangly teenage elk enjoying their first taste of independence. The incredibly beautiful fringed gentians are the dominant wildflower in South Park in August.

Although many of them are cut in the process of making hay, there are always some along the roadside ditches. The deep purple color of their ragged petals is so vivid that they can easily be seen from a moving car. However, to really appreciate their flowers, take one of the side roads — the one running east out of Jefferson is a good choice — and stop to explore the ditches.

Or better, drive to one of the ranch houses and ask for permission to walk on their private land to see the big patches of gentians growing on the pasture land.

The fringed gentian, Gentianopsis thermalis, is becoming quite rare in places where it once was abundant. They are annual plants and therefore if they are cut during haying before they have had time to grow and ripen seeds, there is nothing to grow the next year.

When this occurs for many years, they become fewer and fewer every year until finally they are gone. This has happened in many places in the eastern states where they once were abundant.

I notice that many of the ranches in South Park cut around the large patches of gentians.

This is probably because they do not improve the quality of the hay for which South Park is famous. Whatever the reason, it has helped them to survive in South Park.

By the end of August, the coyotes in the nearby parklands have taught their young how to hunt for their own food and are pushing them out to find a territory of their own. I no longer hear the excited high-pitched yipping of the young as they catch their own mice.

They have learned that a quiet coyote catches more mice and like the adults, are quieter now.

Teenage elk have fun splashing through the shallow water along the creek and lakeshore just as human teenagers do. The adults begin to bugle in late August, and occasionally, the teenagers try out their squeaky voices just to see what will happen. I hear the elk starting to call on the nearby Denver Mountain Park lands from about Aug. 25 to early November.

This is part of their mating and is a high-pitched wailing trumpet-like call. It is heard much more on moonlit nights and is a rather strange ghostly sound that has frightened many a newcomer until they know what it is.

Drive any of the back roads where you have seen elk herds during the day and listen, especially just at dusk. This sad wailing song is a true call of the wild.

Many of the summer birds will be leaving in August, such as the black-headed grosbeak, Western tanager, flycatchers and some swallows.

Others will stay on into September and still other birds will be heading south from farther north.

The fall migration is less urgent than it is in spring, and the birds are not singing as much. Therefore, they are more difficult to locate. Sometimes it is just necessary to sit and watch the movement as many birds follow creek valleys when migrating and listen for their small chirp notes, which help keep them in contact with each other, even at night.

The purple harebells and golden aster are also in bloom now. Harebells are very fragile-looking plants but are actually very hardy and bloom as late as Thanksgiving Day if we have nice weather, but more about that when I have more space. Aspen usually start to turn with a golden branch her or there in late August.

They are usually at their peak the last week of September unless they get frozen or blown off earlier. Fall is usually warm and beautiful here. Nights and early mornings are cool, but do get out and enjoy it while it lasts. The white season is a long one.