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Field Notes: Canyon Country on the Prairie
By Mary Taylor Young
Canyons on the Eastern Plains? No way! Way.
If you think the landscape of Eastern Colorado is boring, flat, featureless, you’re in for a fun surprise. Visitors who take the time to discover the back roads and secret places of southeastern Colorado are amazed to discover a landscape more associated with western Colorado and Utah.
The tributary rivers of the Arkansas have carved fascinating canyons into the prairie landscape, creating a great mix of habitats—grasslands and shrublands up top, rocky cliff edges and canyon sides, piñon-juniper forest at the canyon rims and descending into the canyon, and riparian habitat of cottonwoods and box-elders along rivers and streams at the bottom. These gorges, ravines and valleys are home to a rich array of wildlife, some of it quite surprising.
Did you know there are bighorn sheep not too many miles west of the Kansas border? A herd of bighorn inhabits Cottonwood Canyon south of Springfield in Baca County, as well as Carizzo and Picture Canyons. The south end of the Picket Wire Canyonlands is another place to look for them. Sheep also wander canyons along the Apishapa River, near Apishapa State Wildlife Area.
These are good places to watch for canyon-associated birds such as canyon and rock wrens, wild turkeys and violet-green swallows. Spring migration brings all sorts of birds through—mountain bluebirds, broad-tailed hummingbirds, cedar waxwings, western tanagers, lazuli buntings, blue grosbeaks, to name just a few.
These are also terrific sites for reptiles and amphibians—collared and fence lizards, short-horned lizards, checkered whiptails; spiny softshell, snapping, box and painted turtles; garter and rattlesnakes, coachwhips; chorus and leopard frogs, Woodhouse’s and red spotted toads, tiger salamanders.
Meep, meep. No, you didn’t hear that wrong. Wile E. Coyote’s nemesis, the roadrunner, also inhabits southeastern Colorado. These canyons are home to a number of species more associated with the Southwest: greater roadrunners, scaled quail, canyon towhees, brown thrashers, scissor-tailed flycatchers.
Raptors are present in great variety, including prairie and peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, American kestrels, Mississippi kites and many species of owls.
Wildlife watching in these unexpected canyons is truly a delight, for the landscape, the plants, the wildlife. Spring is the season when things are happening and the weather is comfortable. Take along good shoes, water and binoculars. It’s worth the trip.
Interested in Wildlife Watching in Canyon Country? Visit the Prairie Canyons Trail.