Surface Creek
Thursday October 02, 2014

Clark’s Nutcracker
What a view — far, far out across the valley until all is lost in hazy sunlight. Although I’ve seen this many times, it always intrigues me.

But I’m in the way … scenery is secondary to the visitors today. They’re here to feed the chipmunks!
And the little critters are thick! There’s one that’s a bit larger … I’d guess about eight inches long but the tail is as long as the body. The body is golden tan and there’s one strip down the side. A “golden mantled ground squirrel.” But the others all have stripes on their bodies and into the face. There’s one peeking over the rocky wall … maybe five inches long. I’d guess it to be a “Colorado chipmunk.” And here’s a tiny one, right beside my boot  … a “Least Chipmunk” at four inches long,  maybe! Our group has brought unsalted, hulled sunflower seed for this event.
I must admit that these little creatures are cute, and feeding them seems to be acceptable. I know that they carry seeds inside their cheek pouches and that they hoard food. Maybe enough to last through the long winter ahead after the tourists have all gone home?
But I choose to walk the path away from the rock wall. There are always interesting birds to see here at over 10,000 feet elevation in the spruce-fir or Hudsonian Life Zone. Here, one would expect to see the Canadian or gray jay, Steller’s jay, and Clark’s nutcracker.
I walk slowly, checking the tree tops that line this cliff edge. And there is a nutcracker. It’s perched at the very tip of a tree, but the tree is growing on the vertical cliff so that the tree top is almost at hand’s reach to me. This is the “close encounter” that I hoped for!
This high country bird is known for cracking pine nuts, hence its common name, nutcracker. The scientific name reflects that habit. Nucifraga columbiana with Latin nucis meaning “nut” and frangere meaning “to shatter.” The term columbiana refers to the Columbia River, and, as I recall, that name designates plants, birds, and animals discovered in that region during the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
A nutcracker can carry over ninety seeds at a time in its cheek pouches and caches (buries) up to 33,000 seeds in late summer. The bird breeds early when there’s snow on the ground and so its caches are often buried on south-facing slopes. The bird’s ability to remember where the seeds are cached is a subject of study. It seems that they actually remember the location, perhaps referring to landmarks such as specific rocks or such. But now my nutcracker flies —-plain gray body, dark wings; and there are the broad white margins on the tail.

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