Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR

Once a chemical munitions depot and the site of a pesticide factory, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, in northeast Metro Denver was designated a Superfund Cleanup Site and has since become one of the largest urban National Wildlife Refuges, spreading across 15,000 acres.  Most of the refuge is covered by shortgrass prairie but scattered ponds, wetlands and groves of cottonwoods offer diverse habitat for wildlife.  A Visitor Center, located near the entrance, provides an introduction to the human and natural history of the area and offers a variety of free tours and nature programs.

Those inclined to explore the refuge on their own can drive the Auto Tour route which zig-zags through and past all of the component habitats; in addition, trails lead into those habitats from parking areas that are spaced throughout the refuge.  The tour road passes through a large bison enclosure where those large, native herbivores are easily viewed; visitors are encouraged to remain in their vehicles and maintain a safe distance from the bison.  Other permanent residents of the refuge include bald eagles, a wide variety of raptors, mule deer, coyotes, black-tailed prairie dogs and a host of prairie and riparian songbirds.  Nesting species of note include bald eagles, burrowing owls, Swainson's hawks, Virginia rails, American avocets, long-eared and short-eared owls, Say's phoebes, eastern bluebirds, lark buntings, lark and grasshopper sparrows and black-headed grosbeaks.

This morning, the weather was mild and sunny but a strong west wind raked the refuge, sending legions of tumbleweeds across the fields and roadways.  Despite the wind, most common winter residents were observed, including a large variety of wintering waterfowl.  To reach the Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, take the Quebec St. exit from Interstate 70 and head north; signs to the refuge will direct you right (east) on Prairie and then left (north) on Gateway.