Deep winter is rather a quiet time in the out of doors in this area. Black or near black seems to be the predominant color. Even the endless forest seems to be more black than green against the white of winter snow.
The bitter cold of early February brought a stark black-and-white panorama as cold and sterile as an operating room. However, color is present in small amounts, and the first warms days of March bring forth to welcome spring. The buds and bark of deciduous tree twigs are often quite brilliant and announce the coming of spring long before it finally arrives.
The bark on last summer’s growth is usually the most colorful. Look at the willows along Bear Creek. The old white willows, named for their white wood, have rough, furrowed bark as black as coal on their trunks, but the young twigs that grew last summer have lost their dull autumn tan and are turning yellow to brilliant golden orange.
Shrub willows along Bear Creek and other water courses vary from blueish gray to the brilliant red of coyote willow. As their sap flows upward in the stem, supplying nutrients to the swelling buds, willows become our first harbinger of spring.
The pussy willows usually flower in early April. Their yellow catkins seem to attract the mourning cloak butterflies, which are somberly dressed in black and pale yellow. They seem to match the pale colors of early spring and spring breezes scatter their yellow pollen on the snow.
Willows, cottonwoods and aspen are all members of the willow family and our most common deciduous trees. They all bear male and female flowers on separate trees. If you have a hand lens or a magnifying glass, see if you can find both kinds of flowers. The female flowers will bear dangling chains of fruit. The male flowers bear dangling catkins of yellow pollen that soon fall from the tree.
Our most common evergreen trees are blue spruce, Douglas fir, ponderosa and lodge pole pines, and Rocky Mountain juniper. There are a few others that grow in the mountains at other altitudes, but these are the most common here. Blue spruce and Douglas fir are both short-needled but are quite different in other aspects. Spruces are prickly sharp needled, and Douglas firs have more flexible, soft needles and more flexible swaying branches. Both of these trees may have the famous blue color.
Blue spruce and Douglas fir at this altitude prefer to grow on north-facing slopes or in deep shady ravines where they get a bit more water, while ponderosa pines will grow on open knolls and dry south-facing slopes.
These grand park-like stands of ponderosa pine are what make Evergreen such a pleasant place to live. The ponderosa pine is well named for it is a big, heavy, ponderous tree. It is the yellow pine of the lumber industry found throughout the West and produces more lumber than any other tree.
Unfortunately, it is very susceptible to pine beetle attacks, but some always seem to survive and we then have a more open forest. They survived the serious beetle outbreak of the 1970s, and I feel they will this time, although this may well be the critical year for removing infected trees.
I often wish we had a few more deciduous trees, especially oak and maple, to give us more variety in fall coloring. We do have oaks, but they are mostly gambel’s oak, which is a small tree usually called scrub oak, and Rocky Mountain maple, locally, is more of a large shrub than it is a tree.
Do you have a special tree? I have had several in my lifetime and everyone ought to. Most of mine were trees of my childhood, a place where we met, a place where we picnicked, a place where I read, a place where I hid to watch birds and other animals. I suppose every child wishes he could have a tree near enough his bedroom window so that like Tom Sawyer, he could come and go without anyone knowing it. But that is probably not safe in today’s word.
My special tree today is just an especially large ponderosa near our house. I always stop to say hello to it when I go that way for it is old and dignified, and gives me thoughts of all if must have seen in its lifetime.
I don’t think there was any news in the bird world this week, but as I look up from my writing, two northern flickers flew into the feeder. One has visited off and on all winter but two is news. His mate must have just arrived and now he will start his loud calls and spring drumming to establish his territory and warn all others to keep out. The first spring migrant has returned. The next spring migrant to look for is the song sparrow. Look for him to be singing along Bear Creek or along the lake short by the first week in March.