Dave Armstrong

Resident Naturalist at Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch

Resident Naturalist at Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch

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Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch is a great place to visualize patterns and processes of Earth’s history. Earth science students from local middle and high schools as well as the University of Colorado, the University of Northern Colorado, and Colorado State University often use the Ranch for field trips. Patterns of geology are the foundation for everything else, from vegetation to human land use to the awe-inspiring scenery.

Several of the great ages of Earth are on display at Sylvan Dale.

The granite and schist of Green Ridge, Inspiration Point, and Alexander Mountain represent the Precambrian Era.

A view across 1.8 billion years:

A view across 1.8 billion years: from Ice Age Little Canyon of the Big Thompson
to Pre-Cambrian rocks of Alexander Mountain. ⇱

The Paleozoic Era, the “Age of Fishes and Amphibians,” is represented by the Fountain Formation, the oldest of local sedimentary rocks. Most of our sedimentary rocks are from the Mesozoic Era, the “Age of Reptiles.” Cenozoic rocks, from the “Age of Mammals,” are missing from our immediate area, eroded to sandy bits, hauled downstream, gone to rest in the Gulf of Mexico. The last 2 million years, Read more on Earth History at Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch…

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Road Crossing at Cedar Park ⇱

The ecology of Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch is remarkably diverse. Its 3200 acres are ideally situated to include a huge sample of Colorado’s native wildlife. For example, over 60% of the mammalian species of Colorado occur on the Ranch. In fact, Sylvan Dale has more species of native mammals than does the entire state of Iowa.

Maybe the rabbits tell it best. In the grazing lands and hayfields of the Big Valley, a mile east of the Main Ranch, the Big Thompson becomes a lazy, prairie stream and the well-developed riparian vegetation shelters eastern cottontails. The native and tame pastures on the Main Ranch support desert cottontails. The west end of the Ranch, on Palisade Mountain, is habitat for mountain cottontails. Our three species of cottontails demonstrate that Sylvan Dale is a microcosm, a "cross-roads" for species that, combined, range nearly from coast-to-coast—from Washington DC to Washington State, and from Alberta to Costa Rica.

Read more on Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch—Remarkable Ecological Diversity…

Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, west of Loveland, Colorado, encompasses about 3200 acres, 5 square miles of foothills beauty, a naturalist’s paradise.

This is "up-and-down country." Elevations range from 5140 ft. along the Big Thompson River in the Big Valley to 7340 ft. on the north slope of Palisade Mountain above Cedar Park. That is some 2200 feet of elevational range, a greater range than in 15 of the 50 states!

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Old hay rake in Cedar Park ⇱

Read more on Elevation and Biodiversity…

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Dave and Art at the Cow Camp grill ⇱

One of my favorite spring rituals at Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch is the first trip to Cow Camp—to make sure facilities are guest-ready. Until April we had about the driest winter on record, so the trail would have been passable about any time. When snow finally arrived—in what was officially spring!—we got a typical foothills winter’s worth of moisture in a couple of weeks. So the 4-wheel drive trail has been muddy and impassable. This is the first week I could get in without tearing up the trail or burying my pickup!

Read more on Sylvan Dale’s Cow Camp Looks Beautiful!…

Visitors attuned to the natural world (as most Sylvan Dale guests are) often comment on the diversity of the Ranch—wildflowers, butterflies, birds, and mammals. Sylvan Dale lies at a sort of “crossroads,” between the mountains and the plains and also between north and south. And in recent decades there have been subtle changes.

Fifty years ago, there was one jay here, Stellar’s jay, a bird typical of ponderosa pine woodlands. Then folks increasingly noticed blue jays—birds of the eastern deciduous forests—in the riparian corridor of the Big Thompson and in ornamental plantings. Soon thereafter, hybrids between Steller’s and blue jays began to appear along the foothills of the Front Range, first in Boulder and now more widely, including Sylvan Dale.

pinyon_jay.jpg Then this week, Susan saw a pinyon jay in the yard. Native to the pinyon-juniper woodland of southwestern US and México, these birds occur mostly from the southwestern half of Colorado, in pinyon-juniper woodlands. Sylvan Dale has the junipers, but not the pinyon. Nonetheless, this season at least the Ranch apparently is attractive to these birds. Perhaps it’s because the junipers (“cedars”) are particularly beautiful this year, with a huge “cone” crop. Whatever the jays’ inspiration, bienvenida, amigos!

- David Armstrong
Sylvan Dale Resident Naturalist

Mammals of Colorado, 2nd edition is now available:
Check your hometown bookstore or use the link above

Abert’s squirrels are about as beautiful as rodents get. They are about the size of their cousins the fox squirrels that are so conspicuous along the Big Thompson at Sylvan Dale, but they are jet black or salt-&-pepper gray in color, and sport magnificent ear tufts.

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These are southwestern mammals, ranging from Durango, Mexico, to northern Colorado. The animals depend on ponderosa pines for their livelihood. They eat pine seeds and the inner bark of young branches. Nests in ponderosa pines are built of pine branches and needles. The squirrels can be very difficult to spot, but listen for the scratch of claws on bark as they scamper up a tree to gather food and building materials.

Also, look for tufts of green needles on the forest floor. Then look for 1- to 2-inch chunks of barkless twig, about the diameter of a pencil. These are called “pine cobs” by Abert’s squirrel aficionados; they are the leftovers from squirrels’ snacking on pine bark! The animals are active year around, and both the squirrels and their sign are particularly conspicuous on snowy slopes during winter.

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They seem to like larger trees best. They are present in the heavy timber of the hidden valleys on Alexander Mountain, up Sulzer Gulch, and especially at Cow Camp. Abert’s squirrels are one more great reason to get into Sylvan Dale’s back country—on an overnight pack trip as a summer guest or as an Adventure Rider…or both!

Dave Armstrong
Resident Naturalist–Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch

Every day is Earth Day at Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch.

In our daily activities we try to keep in mind that this is the first day of the rest of the life of the planet.

This happens in little ways and larger ones. On the personal scale, Team leads and their staffs are sensitive to the “Four R’s”—Refuse-Reduce-Reuse-Recycle. This comes naturally at Sylvan Dale. The modern guest ranch operation was founded in 1946 by Maurice and Mayme "Tillie" Jessup, both “children of the Great Depression.” Re-use was simply a matter of survival and recycling earned a few extra pennies.

Read more on Every day is Earth Day!…

Coyotes have a reputation bigger than life. In the Southwest and Mexico, they were known by natives and immigrants alike as “trickster” because of their wily ways, cunning, versatile, scrappy adversaries who commanded grudging respect. Coyotes are emblematic of wide open spaces. Now increasingly too familiar as suburban scavengers or even urban “dumpster divers,” coyotes evolved their versatile habits on a wild continent where wolves were “top dog.” With the demise of wolves, their much larger cousins, coyotes have expanded their range and now are common from the Arctic to Costa Rica.

coyote-the-trickster.jpgExpect to see coyotes anywhere on Sylvan Dale’s 5 square miles of diverse habitats, but they are especially “watchable” right on the Home Pastures. This year there were at least two dens within the view from The Hilltop, in the rough, brushy country just east of the canal. Both parents help to raise the pups, bring home a feast of cottontails, prairie dogs, and mice as well as carrion. They probably would harvest Susan’s chickens as well, except for some industrial grade fencing and the vigilance of their fearless, distant cousin, Maggie (the Wonder Dog).

Every night there are singing contests between the north and south ends of the pastures. Just now they prefer to perform about 3 AM, trailing grown-up calls followed by ragged choruses of youngsters’ yips.

Coyotes are no threat to people or livestock and like other native wildlife at Sylvan Dale, they have a comfortable refuge here, prospering in natural landscapes protected from future development by perpetual conservation easements.

David M. Armstrong
Resident Naturalist, SDR
Author Rocky Mountain Mammals

Where the Wild Things Are — Dippers

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American Dipper

The most aquatic of song birds, dippers or water ouzels are gray, robin-sized, with short, perky, wren-like tails. No skinny dippers, these are round, well-insulated feather balls, with stubby wings that allow them to fly under water. American dippers live only in the western mountains, from Alaska to Mexico.

Dippers dip. They bob up and down with quick knee-bends, apparently to allow a good view through the reflective surface of the water. Then they hike along the bottom of a tumbling mountain stream, hanging on with their toes, probing among the rocks for insects to eat.

Their nest is a hollow ball of moss on an inaccessible cliff above the water. Most summers there are two or three dipper nests along the Big Thompson on the Main Ranch. The lowest of them is just above water level at the north end of the bridge on the way to the early morning Breakfast Ride! This may be the lowest-elevation dipper nest in Colorado.

Come see us (and the dippers!). Invest some quality time communing with the dippers after that old-fashioned country breakfast!