Naturally Speaking “Fall of Painted Ladies”

Dave Hallock, Eldora.  They were seen flitting around all fall. Mid-sized butterflies with orange, white and markings, milling around any remaining flowers or in flight. There were thousands, no millions of them, seen up and down the Front Range. It even made national news, as there were so many of them it was caught on Denver weather radar, which detected a 70-mile wide swath of butterfly movement. When I was doing work in the foothills of the Wet Mountains southwest of Pueblo, they were flying around me all day.


Painted ladies are thought to be the most widespread butterfly on earth. Their wintering grounds on this continent is centered in the Southwest and northern Mexico. Large migrations north are generally triggered by wet winters in the Southwest (remember the rains in California this past winter), which lead to good blooms of desert wildflowers that provide abundant food. This year, painted ladies started being seen in Boulder County and the Nederland area in mid-April. Other memorable years for their spring migration include 2001 and 2005.


Much less is known about the return migration in the fall. Some people even felt there was none and that it was a one-way trip for the butterflies. However, recent research in Europe found that the fall migration occurred higher in the sky, averaging a quarter of a mile above the ground. That has yet to be discovered here, but is a possible answer to why we have missed this part of their journey. Over the years during fall I have had several high elevation observations of painted ladies with a strong south, southwest or west movement. This year was no exception. On September 18, while hiking on the 505 between Eldora and Caribou, large numbers of them were witnessed following the road through the forest heading west despite a strong wind in their face. We still have much to learn about nature.


Clark’s nutcrackers are birds that interest me. These large mostly gray birds, with white markings on mostly black wings and long black bills, favor the seeds of conifer trees for food and will work communally caching seeds in the ground only to return months later and re-find them for food. While on a hike on the west flank of Bald Mountain in early September, numerous nutcrackers were observed working on the green cones of limber pine trees near timberline. The birds were pounding the heck out of the green cones, extracting seeds and then flying to the ground and burying them. Could this be a food cache site where they bring their young-of-the-year in the spring?


Being chased by a moose can be exhilarating! I was in the Caribou area conducting a fall bird count and generally follow the same route, most of it off-trail. As I was getting near a pond that is surrounded by trees and willows, a lot of thrashing and grunting could be heard; must be a bull moose. I worked my way over to the edge of the forest in case some cover was needed and eventually saw a bull with a good sized rack, who was looking right at me. Instead of following the usual route through the meadow near the pond I worked my way through the forest, but ended up coming back to the meadow not too far from the pond. Wanting to stay close to the traditional route, I headed through the meadow, when the moose leaped out of the pond and starting running towards me. I didn’t know I could still run, but run I did towards the forest while thinking “great, I’m going to have a heart attack and then be stomped by a moose!” The gravestone would read “But he stayed on his route.” But I made it over a ridge and back into the forest with no sign of the moose.


Following are some of the November nature happenings in the Nederland area. Elk will wind down their mating activities. The timing of their movement to lower elevation varies with each herd. Some have already made the trek, while others will let the increasing snow depth push them down. Black bears continue to find winter dens for hibernation, with the second and third weeks of November being the peak time for males. Moose will also wind down their breeding activities. Mule deer breed in November and December. Most have moved down to the foothills. The last ground squirrels and chipmunks will go into hibernation, though still may pop out from time to time during mild weather. Mice and pack rats continue their migration into our cabins.