Behind the Scenes: 365 Days at a Productive Hay Meadow in the Yampa Valley

 

The hay meadow at Summer Ranch, a YVLT conservation project preserving wildlife habitat and open space views.

Hay meadows need our care and stewardship

 

Northwest Colorado is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife; a staple of this region and a core component of its cultural identity.  We owe our almost daily encounters with animals to the wealth of prime habitat within and on the outskirts of our communities.  Your support allows us to preserve the natural qualities which make this place so special.

Quality wildlife habitat comes in many forms in Northwest Colorado, from the aspen-dotted hillsides to its lush irrigated hay meadows.  Hay meadows are scattered throughout this vast open landscape and are a familiar sight to many, but their environmental functions are not widely understood.

In actuality, the wet, marshy environments that irrigated hay fields foster supplies among the most species-rich habitat in Northwest Colorado.  Nutrient-rich plants found in the meadows attract insects and invertebrates, important food sources for many animals.  Irrigated meadows are particularly beneficial for migratory birds, whose populations have plummeted in recent years due to habitat loss, conversion and fragmentation.  With your help, YVLT has conserved tens of thousands of acres of this important (and declining) habitat throughout the region.

An estimated 341 Neotropical migratory bird species exist in North America.  Nearly 130 of those are known to be in decline, and 60 are considered to be in severe decline (i.e. populations roughly cut in half over 40 years).  Many birds return from the spring migration only to find that their preferred nesting grounds have succumbed to human development.  Over time, this cumulative habitat loss has been devastating to certain species.  Open space preservation and smart growth are among the key ways to help stabilize declining avian populations, which rely on diverse ecosystems like the hay meadow during many stages of their development.

The benefits of hay fields are not limited to wildlife, but are realized by humans on a daily basis as well.  In addition to performing vital ecosystem functions and promoting diversity, these environments offer both social and economic value.  Hay meadows preserve Northwest Colorado’s iconic open landscape and help sustain local agriculture, which has long been a backbone of the regional economy – proving that habitat conservation and agriculture are not mutually exclusive aims.

These dynamic ecosystems undergo dramatic changes from season-to-season and as such, they serve a wide range of wildlife.  Colorado wildlife representing nearly all branches of the animal kingdom utilize hay meadows at some point in their lives, be it for food, water, shelter, nesting grounds, or movement corridors.  Perhaps the best way to understand these complex environments is to explore the seasonal change that occurs in a hay field over the course of a year. 

Join us as we go behind the scenes at an irrigated hay meadow in the fertile Yampa Valley, inspired by one of YVLT’s conservation projects at a historic ranch in Routt County.

 

Spring

It’s April in the Yampa Valley. 

A wet spring inundates the Yampa Valley. Photo: Wyoming Aero Photo LLC

 

The lingering blanket of sun-baked snow is receding and the ground has thawed, leaving behind a series of boggy seasonal ponds across the valley floor.  Many refer to the shoulder season in Northwest Colorado as the “mud season,” a period distinguished by stormy weather, saturated soil and gushing rivers fueled by rapid snowmelt.  Over the course of a few days, the influx of water will transform the landscape from varying shades of tan to a vibrant chameleon-green.

Meanwhile in the Valley, the hay meadow on a YVLT-conserved ranch is thriving amid the spring runoff.  Sedges, clovers and grasses are growing taller by the day, providing much-needed food and shelter for resident wildlife who have endured a long, hard winter.  Warmer temperatures wake the animals from a lethargic state and suddenly, the meadow – which lay dormant just a week or two ago – is bustling with activity.  Some of these guests may stay for just a few moments, some will stay for a season, and others will visit periodically for the next several years.

 

Legacy Ranch, owned by the City of Steamboat Springs and conserved by YVLT. Photo: N. McCormish

 

This is an exciting time of year on the ranch.  Migratory birds have returned from their southern exodus and are taking refuge in the meadow or along the nearby banks of the meandering Yampa River.  Now that the snow has shed from their traditional nesting grounds, a pair of Greater Sandhill Cranes can be seen strutting about the wet marshes and Oxbows at the meadow’s edge.  The willow thickets and tall grass fields provide plenty of cover for this pair to raise their newborns, and they will happily reside here until the fall migration.  These captivating birds are keen on family values – cranes generally remain faithful to the same partners for life!

 

CPW Cranes

Sandhill cranes are commonly seen poking around hay meadows near waterbodies. Photo: CPW

 

Local birdwatchers regularly line the banks of the Yampa River during this time to marvel at the cranes, scanning intently for their long necks and the distinctive crimson patches adorning their foreheads.  These large native birds (a State Threatened Species) are widely regarded as among the most graceful dancers in the animal kingdom.  If onlookers are lucky, they will be treated to a truly unique and animated display:

 

 

Many other species are similarly drawn to the prime conditions in the hay field.  Early-season growth in the meadow is ideal for foraging, attracting Wilson’s Snipes, Great Blue Herons, Red-winged Blackbirds and even the occasional moose.  At the fringe of the meadow near the riverbanks, a well-camouflaged snipe combs the muddy ground with its long beak.  The short, stocky sandpiper bobs up and down, curiously scouring the earth for earthworms and protein-rich insects.  Success!  Triumphantly raising its head, the snipe showcases its wriggling, hard-earned trophy and zig-zags into the distance.

Countless other creatures – elk, butterflies, toads, hawks, snakes, bees, dragonflies – depend on patch environments like hay fields at various times of the year.  The meadow is a revolving door: with spring runoff slowing to a trickle and valley temperatures on the rise, some of the meadow’s temporary visitors will return to higher ground while new guests begin to filter in.

 

Summer

The dog days of summer are fast approaching. 

It is mid-June in the Yampa Valley and temperatures have crept into the upper 70’s.  The heat occasionally conjures an afternoon thunderstorm amid the otherwise hot and sunny days, showering the thirsty ground with a brief burst of precipitation.

 

Looking across YVLT-conserved Legacy Ranch on the outskirts of Steamboat Springs. Photo: N. McCormish

 

Hay and pasture grasses are now waist-deep throughout the irrigated meadow, which benefitted from a particularly wet spring.  While most opt to remain at high mountain elevations among the cool, thick patches of dark timber during the summer months, a few remaining deer and elk occasionally pause in the meadow to browse on the bountiful supply of food.  The open field provides an important movement corridor for these large creatures at all times of year, allowing them to bypass surrounding clusters of human development as they wander down to the Yampa River to quench their thirst.

New faces arrive in the meadow daily as the hot summer sun soaks up the moisture elsewhere in the valley.  A Greater Sage-grouse hen and her brood recently traveled here from the neighboring sagebrush shrublands, taking shelter in the wet meadows now that her preferred sagebrush habitat has dried out.  In this damp environment, her chicks will have little trouble finding the tender forbs and juicy bugs that they need to flourish.

 

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Greater Sage-grouse often visit hay meadows near sagebrush country to raise their young. Photo: CPW

 

Western Chorus Frogs are small enough to fit on a fingernail, but their raspy trill (“cree-ee-ek!”) rings through the meadow and is audible nearly a half mile away.  This gravely call sounds in sharp contrast to the bubbling chorus chiming from a Bobolink nest tucked away deep in the hay field.  Wet meadows like this are Bobolinks’ breeding grounds of choice, and the dense, flowing stands of grass found here provides sufficient cover to shield their young, which should hatch any day now.  The melodies echoing through the hay field serve as a reminder that many animals – large and small – rely on these diverse ecosystems for survival.

For a brief time, the meadow experiences an explosion of color as a sea of seasonal wildflowers are in full bloom.  Diminutive Bobolinks with their skunk-like plumes can often be seen perching on flower stalks, preparing for their fall migration to the southern hemisphere.  Despite their small size, these birds are world travelers: some will fly over 10,000 miles this year going to and from South America.  They are using this time to rest and to conserve energy for the long journey ahead.

 

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Hay meadows, once the crop is cut and baled, are great places to host YVLT summer picnics!

 

Irrigation season is coming to an end and now the time has come to harvest the annual crop: over the course of a few weeks, the hay will be cut, raked, shaped into bales, and carted off the meadow.  For birds that nest in hayfields, timing is everything: if the hay is cut too soon, the chicks may not survive.  Cutting hay after the first or second week of August helps to ensure that another generation of songbirds has fledged – and also ensures 100 percent “bird-free hay!”  After the hay is cut and baled, it is moved to storage and will provide food for livestock during the winter until grazing season resumes in the spring.

Summer is waning as the days are getting shorter and the nights grow colder.  Fall is in the air.

 

Fall

Elk from CPW

Elk from CPWA bull’s breath lingers in the crisp fall air. Photo: CPW

 

The sound of bugling elk echoes throughout the Yampa Valley.

It is early October and Northwest Colorado is bursting with vivid displays of fall color.  A shimmering sea of golden aspen leaves in the hills signals that winter is near, and the hay meadow’s guests are busy preparing for leaner times to come. 

 

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Colorful Colorado: YVLT’s conservation project at Mystic Hill.

 

The overnight frosts and occasional snow dustings are pushing deer and elk down from the high country into a mid-elevation “transition range” and occasionally down into the valley.   Elk mating season (the “rut”) is underway and the animals have formed small groups or “harems” led by dominant male bulls.  At dawn, a harem comprised of a bull and about a dozen cows roams through the meadow, the condensation from their breaths hanging in the chilly fall air.  The leader of the group emits a roaring bugle that pierces the morning silence of the valley, drowning out the chirps and grunts coming from the cows.  This is the bull’s way of showing off for the cows and asserting its dominance over the group.  Minutes later, the sun crests over the towering mountain peaks to the east, illuminating the valley and inciting a flurry of activity in the meadow.  The bull leads the harem down to the river for a quick drink before disappearing into the nearby sea of trees and vegetation.

 

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During the “rut,” elk utilize willowed areas and irrigated meadows on YVLT-conserved YZ Ranch, a 5,280-acre property situated along the South Fork of the White River. Photo: Dorsey/YVLT

 

By mid-September, resident Greater Sage-grouse begin to retreat back to the thick sagebrush canopy, which will provide shelter and sustenance during the dark, cold winter months.  The Sandhill Cranes are preparing for a journey to the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado (and then ultimately even further south), fattening up in the wet meadows and grain fields.  For weeks the young cranes or “colts” have been learning to fly, sharpening their take-offs and landings.  While the adult cranes can travel as far as 400 miles a day, this family will need to slow down to make sure their young can keep pace.

The mass exodus continues as the thin deposit of snow covering the valley floor gradually starts to accumulate.  Aside from a few lingering Magpies, the meadow is temporarily vacant.  The wind is all that is audible across the empty hay field.

 

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Volcanic dikes on YVLT-conserved Rossi Ranch make for a stunning backdrop as the seasons change. Photo: Dorsey/YVLT

 

Winter

It is late January in Routt County.

The meadow is buried under three feet of Colorado’s famous “Champagne Powder®” (trademarked by Steamboat Ski Resort!).  Snow sports enthusiasts may be thrilled with this weather, but the winter months mark an annual struggle for survival for many of the animals in this region.

 

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Overlooking YVLT-conserved open space across Legacy Ranch. Photo: N. McCormish

 

While some of Northwest Colorado’s wildlife hibernates during the winter, deer and elk generally remain semi-active and relocate to lower, more temperate elevations to escape the deep snow; often to south-facing slopes that retain winter forage.  Their goal for the winter is to burn as few calories as possible, conserving energy and living off of fat reserves when food is scarce.  The meadow is important at this time because it provides them with an unimpeded movement corridor, allowing them to more easily browse on shrubs, grass, twigs, bark, and seed-rich patches of uncut hay that still line the irrigation ditches.  It is a dark and difficult time for these animals, but perseverance will see them through the winter.

The hay field lays dormant under the rosy pink hue of the mountains, illuminated by the evening’s stunning alpenglow.

 

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In a few short weeks it will be spring, and the cycle begins once again as the powerful sun sheds the layers of compacted snow and breathes life back into the meadow.

The next time you pass by a hay meadow, pause for a minute –there is more than meets the eye!  If you look closely you may catch a glimpse of the diverse wildlife community that lives there.

 

Support YVLT in its wildlife habitat conservation efforts, which has permanently protected over 55,000 acres across Northwest Colorado with 74 conservation easement projects.

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