You would think that as a biologist I would have gotten used to this by now, but for some reason I have always found the idea of food chains hard to stomach. It seems that I form an emotional attachment to the fluffy and/or feathered, and in the past I always found myself rooting for the middle of the food chain. You know them, the cute rodents (I can hear Lily squeal as I type that sentence), the fluffy little plovers, and I even find myself being a little bit protective of the smaller lizards that I sometimes see going by in the beak of a roadrunner when I’m back home in New Mexico. So recently, I am surprised to find myself completely and utterly fascinated with predators. I’ve always known they were necessary. I can trace that knowledge all the way back to 6th grade where we did the “Lynx and Hare” lab – a carrying capacity exercise where you watch the population of rabbits completely explode and decimate an entire habitat without the presence of their number one predator, the lynx. However, I now find myself appreciating their fight for survival, and I have become quite curious about those creatures closer to the top of the food chain.
Luckily, Alamosa seems to be overrun with predators these days. Maybe it’s just because I am now actively searching them out, but over the past week I gotta say I have seen the most random assortment of predators I could have ever imagined.
It all started with our bird survey, when Anjelica and I drove by pond 141 and spooked a Great Horned Owl nesting in a nearby Russian Olive. Since then, every Tuesday and Thursday morning we pull up to the pond and watch this enormous owl flutter laboriously out of the tangled branches. It never fails to fly one quick circle around the fish pond and then perch on a tree across the playa, waiting impatiently for us to leave and staring in our direction the entire time. Needless to say he is not the biggest fan of us interrupting his sleep as we lumber up the dirt road in the BLM truck. That’s predator number one.
On Monday, I performed a bird survey with Lisa Rawinksi, a contractor with the BLM. On our second pond, I was excited to point out a Golden Eagle that flushed all of the birds off of pond 115. I was feeling quite proud of myself until she urgently told me to take another look through my binoculars – it was getting dive-bombed by a Northern Harrier that likely had a nest nearby. That was predator number two. And three.
The same day, on our way back into town we nearly ran over a Swainson’s Hawk. I had no idea these birds were so massive until he was sitting in the middle of the otherwise abandoned dirt road picking apart a jackrabbit and not seeming to mind one bit that we rolled up in a noisy SUV just 10 feet away. Naturally, the second I reached for my camera he seemed to get spooked, so sadly I was unable to document the unusual occurrence of this large bird eating its fill right in front of me. He was number 4.
As if the road had not seen enough strange things for one day, Anjelica and I were headed back from the wetlands on Wednesday and I saw a strange, thin stick laying in the middle of the road. As I got closer I realized it was not a stick at all, but a bull snake catching some sun. By the time I realized this, I couldn’t safely stop the car in time and thought I ran him over. I quickly turned around to go check if he was okay, and was surprised to find that he was not hurt at all, just a little flustered from a close call with our vehicle. Anjelica was not amused when I picked him up to move him off of the road and out of the way of future passing cars. He was number 5.
But the most unusual of the list of predators I saw this week actually came on my day off. It was a warm day and I decided it was time to look into an advertisement I had been seeing all over the valley since I had arrived in Alamosa in March. The sign read “Colorado Gators, 1/4 mile off Highway 17”. And let me assure you, it did not disappoint.