Over the past six or eight years, we have visited this new refuge a number of times during visits to my daughter Monica who lives in Arvada. It is located only a few miles north and east of Denver and adjacent to the Denver International Airport.
The land was owned by homesteaders at the opening of WW2, but they were summarily ousted by the federal government to provide land for a chemical weapons manufacturing and storage facility. Later, part of the land was leased to Shell Oil, also for chemical manufacturing.
As the need for chemical weapons diminished, and international law resetricted their use, the facility became unnecessary. The discovery of a pair of Bald Eagles prompted calls for making this a National Wildlife Refuge. Legislation was passed in 1992 to create such a refuge and over the next eighteen years, many building were demolished and restoration was undertaken to remove contaminated soil. In stages the Army turned over sections of the facility to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the refuge was formally established. A temporary visitor center was opened and a small part of the refuge opened to the public.
Finally in 2010, the process was complete and a very attractive visitors center was dedicated. The entire property is 15,000 acres of short grass prairie with a few trees planted originally by settlers. The refuge is home to large numbers of both Mule and White-tailed Deer, Coyotes, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, Desert Cottontails and numerous bird species like this Red-tailed Hawk. Several small ponds support breeding waterfowl and fishing, while larger shallow lakes are important fall and winter spots for migrating waterfowl.
Bison were reintroduced in 2008 and the herd has multiplied since. Bison are restricted to a fenced in area to prevent unwanted interactions with tourists.
This trip we visited early on December 23 and 24. It is important to visit this — and most — wildlife refuges early in the day because that is when most animals are active and about. And also, visitors are limited. This refuge opens at 6 every day and during the winter this is before dawn. We planned our arrival for sun-up, but the entrance gate had been moved and we missed a sign. The very bright sun was coming right at us and obscured the large sign for a left hand turn! We wasted twenty minutes back-tracking and asking people how to gain access. One person had no idea, even though the entrance was a scant mile away. Another told us of the entrance that was closed three years before!
When we finally got our bearings and entered, the first wildlife we saw was a coyote meandering out on the ice of a pond. What he thought he was going to find there is unknown, but he must have found something in the past, or he would not have been wasting his time!
A few minutes later after we had come to the end of the road, we were retracing our steps when we noticed several White-tailed Deer does walking and brousing towards the road. Following them were two big bucks with impressive racks. There was another photographer, on foot, working the deer so I had to be careful not to interfere with him. At one pont the two bucks began a little low level combat, but it was not very serious because the rut was over and does would not have been receptive to amorous advances by the winning buck. Here is one after the encounter, walking away.
In all my time afield all over the US, I have never seen so many rabbits out and about in daylight as we saw on this refuge. This one for all the world looked like a humorless, prune-faced old schoolteacher after sending Johnny to the principal’s office!
Our second day, conditions must have been a certain way, because many of the Desert Cottontails were hunkered down in Prairie Dog holes. Did the dogs mind? Were these holes abandoned? Who knows. We saw no conflicts!
Speaking of prairie dogs, the species present here is the Black-tailed, the only one of the four that does not hibernate. In fact, they are very active all winter, particularly when the sun is out. It doesn’t matter, apparently, what the ambient temperature is, they still go out to munch on sage brush and other vegetation.
Our second day on the refuge on this trip was notable for raptors. We saw five species and photographed four. Most impressive was a Ferruginous Hawk, a western bird of open lands. I have only seen a few of these in my life, and never made a decent photo of one. In fact, I may have never taken a single frame of this bird!
We also spotted a Juvenile Bald Eagle next to the road and a cute little American Kestrel, also adjacent to the wildlife drive. Kestrels breed here and a few stay around for a winter season that can be very harsh, with strong winds across the prairie and very cold nightime temps. They are a big grasshopper predator in summer, but what they eat in the winter is problematic.
We saw plenty of Mule Deer both days, but they always seemed to be up sun from us, so difficult to make a good photo. Many of the bucks had impressive horns, bigger than seen in most locations in Colorado. There must be lots of calcium in the soil here to enhance heavy horn growth. Chris spotted this monster buck close to the road. It looks like a granddaddy and is probably quite old. He paid no attention to us as we maneuvered the car repeatedly to get in the right position for photos.
As the sun was getting up in the sky, the light becoming unfavorable and it being Christmas Eve, we were taking out last loop around the wildlife drive, suddenly a nice looking coyote appeared on the left side. I thought this would be a great photo op, but the coyote had other ideas. He was following some alluring scent and despite my best efforts continued to lope along, head down, on target. I shot him in action, which made a nice end to our two day visit to this rewarding urban wildlife refuge.