Spring in the mountains is a time of total transformation. Blooming flowers, returning birds, and migrating mammals bring the landscape alive after a long, snowy winter. You may still be hitting the slopes, enjoying sunny spring skiing, or maybe you’re on the road, cycling in the fresh spring air before summer brings the crowds.
Regardless of your preferred spring sport, everyone can slow down this season to enjoy the transformation. This short, fleeting season will be gone before you know it, and it’s worth taking the time to enjoy its magic. To help you experience springtime in Aspen, try a spring scavenger hunt. We’ve got some ideas about the plants, animals, and birds you can look for this time of year, as well as a few hints on where to find them.
What You Need for a Spring Scavenger Hunt
Set aside a few hours, a day, or even several days to check these items off your spring scavenger hunt list. While we can’t guarantee you’ll get to see all of these species, the more time you spend outdoors, the more you’re likely to see.
You’ll also want to gather some supplies before you head out. Unless you’re an expert naturalist and are familiar with all the species on this list, you’ll want to bring a field guide or download an app or two that can help you identify different plants, animals, tracks, and scat. Since you can’t always get a close look at birds and animals, a pair of binoculars can help. Finally, bring your phenology journal and pencils so you can record, sketch, and keep track of your observations. Don’t have a phenology journal? Learn what it is and how to start one here.
With these materials in hand, it’s time to head off on your spring scavenger hunt. Below are some species to look for as well as some helpful hints to make your search a little easier.
Spring Scavenger Hunt: Species to Look For
Changes in the season bring about migrations, new plant growth, and changes in animal behavior. While there are limitless observations to make while exploring this time of year, here are some species to guide your scavenger hunt.
Warmer weather brings lots of exciting bird activity to our forests, wetlands, and meadows. Hallam Lake and Rock Bottom Ranch are both great areas to start checking these birds off your list. Bring a field guide or download an app to help you ID the sounds and markings of these species. (Photos in order from left to right, top row then bottom row).
- Mountain Chickadees look similar to Black-capped Chickadees but have a white stripe above their eyes and more gray on their bellies. They’re common in coniferous forests and, when it gets warmer, high-elevation aspen forests.
- Song Sparrows are streaked with brown and cream. They have a short bill and pink legs, with reddish-brown coloring on their heads. Song Sparrows hang out by the water, so look for them at Hallam Lake.
- Steller's Jays are black-headed with blue bodies, and they have a crest sticking up from their heads. Look for Steller’s Jays in coniferous mountain forests and near Hallam Lake.
- Red-winged Blackbirds have a recognizable song, and they’re easy to spot, too. About the size of a robin and black with red-orange spots on each wing, Red-winged Blackbirds live near marshes, swamps, and wetlands.
- Red-tailed Hawks are another common species you can see in the spring. While their color varies from brown to black to white, the adults usually have a reddish tail that gives them away. They’re found in many different habitats, usually with a mix of open land and high perches.
- Great Blue Herons are large, bluish-gray birds with long beaks, legs, and necks. Look for these graceful birds near marshes, swamps, and wetlands.
- Killdeer are often spotted near water or in pastures or fields. Members of the plover family, killdeer have black beaks and breast bands, and large eyes. Look for them at Rock Bottom Ranch!
- Violet-green swallows put on a show at Hallam Lake and Rock Bottom Ranch, swooping, flying, and catching insects at dawn and dusk. This white-bellied bird with vibrant green and violet coloring is the inspiration behind our ACES logo!
In addition to these species, look for hummingbirds zipping around at Hallam Lake during the last few days of April and the first few days of May. And keep an eye out for young goslings trailing behind their parents!
Spring signals changes for many animals in the area. Some animals wake up from hibernation, others migrate from winter to summer ranges, and some give birth to young. While it’s exciting to see wildlife in action, it’s not always possible — or safe — to do so. Don’t let this fact limit your spring scavenger hunt. Instead, look for these animals’ signs in addition to the animals themselves. Tracks and scat are probably the easiest animal signs to identify, so bring a tracking field guide if you’re unfamiliar with what they look like. (Photos in order from left to right, top row then bottom row).
- Elk move from lower elevations to higher elevations as the snowline creeps up the mountains. Late spring is calving season, and females separate from the herd to give birth. Melting snow can also reveal antler sheds, which bulls drop in the fall.
- Black bears come out of hibernation in mid-March. In the spring, they’ll forage on fresh grasses, flowers, and leaves. Keep an eye out for their tracks — black bears’ hind feet are about 7 inches long — in remaining snow or mud.
- Moose spend time near bodies of water during the spring and summer months. In the spring, bull moose are early in the process of regrowing their antlers, which — like elk — they shed every fall. Look for their large, hoof-shaped prints that can be more than 5 inches in length.
- Mule deer earn their name from their mule-like, oversized ears. Look for them in open areas — they often blend into the surrounding shrubs. Mule deer tracks are much smaller than a moose’s, usually between 2 and 3 inches in length.
- Mink live near water and have a dark brown coat. They’re known to take over muskrat dens, which are a common prey for mink. You might see them near the cattail pasture at Rock Bottom Ranch.
- Beavers, known as nature’s engineers, are active year-round. Beavers create ponds by damming streams and rivers, and their signs are quite obvious: gnawed willows, dams made out of willow and aspen, and — for the lucky observer — the sound of a tail slapping on the surface of the water. Look for beavers at dusk at Hallam Lake!
Wildflowers and Plants
Perhaps the easiest to spot and identify, spring plants and wildflowers are exciting signs of spring. They’re an especially fun subject to sketch or paint in your phenology journal — you don’t have to worry about them flying away! Bring your art materials and take your time observing some of the season’s first blooms. (Photos in order from left to right, top row then bottom row. Photo of Pasqueflower and Nelson's Larkspur by Kamille Winslow).
- Aspen tree catkins signal spring before these trees’ trembling leaves start to grow. These long clusters of tiny flowers appear hanging off aspen branches in early spring. Look for them in stands of aspen all over the Roaring Fork Valley.
- Cottonwood leaves start to appear on trees at Hallam Lake and in other riparian areas in the spring. This time of year, the leaves are roughly dime-sized.
- Morel mushrooms appear in the springtime and are a real treasure to find. Look for them at Hallam Lake, but to find them, you’ll have to put in some effort. Morels often blend in with the soil and plants around them, and grow near or under grass, stumps, and logs.
- Mountain Gooseberry plants have bell-shaped, orange or pink flowers in the spring. Later in the summer, they’ll explode with bright red berries. They grow in rocky areas or forests in and above the foothills zone.
- Pasqueflowers, or Prairie Crocuses, have blue or purple hairy flowers shaped like a cup. They’re found in the mountains and the plains — look for them in well-drained meadows, open woodlands, and rocky areas.
- Spring Beauty is a white-petaled flower with pink stripes or veins. It grows low to the ground — only a few inches tall — and grows in small groupings in moist soils. Look for them near remaining patches of snow.
- Nelson’s Larkspur has vivid, purplish-blue, hairy petals. It’s more similar in size to Low Larkspur than Tall Larkspur, reaching about 50-60 centimeters in height. Look for them on sunny, dry slopes and in open meadows.
- Sagebrush Buttercups have shiny green leaves and bright yellow flowers. They’re one of the first blooms of the spring season. As the name suggests, look for these flowers growing near sagebrush or in open pine forests.
Explore Aspen’s Plant and Animal Life at ACES!
If you’re ready to welcome spring with open arms, head outdoors for a spring scavenger hunt. This quiet, slower season is full of wonder if you look close enough — and there’s nothing more magical than watching the new season unfold before your eyes.
If you’re not sure where to start your spring scavenger hunt, come visit us at ACES.
In addition to the wild species you might find at Rock Bottom Ranch, you can see flowering tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouses, sprouting veggies in the fields, and chickens out on the pasture. And be sure to listen for the sound of mooing cows as May comes to a close!
Visit Rock Bottom Ranch on Tuesdays and Fridays during the spring from 9am to 4pm.
Hallam Lake is open Monday through Friday from 9am-5pm. Join us May 12 for a community Earth Day in May celebration!