Birds and flowers — and climate change in Colorado

Flower counting can be fun - but late frosts and deer intrusion have killed plenty of flowers over the years.

GOTHIC - That saying, 'April showers bring May flowers' might sound cute—but then you realize it is not April anymore, and you have been working in the rain for the past month. That is researcher David Inouye’s life right now.

“The weather has had [an] effect on some of the fieldwork this summer,” said Inouye, who is a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic. “It’s not quite as nice doing fieldwork as it is some summers.”

But there is an upside to working in the rain.

“It’s good for the wildflowers,” Inouye said.

Inouye has been studying the wildflowers around Gothic, which is near Crested Butte, for decades. He said he has seen many changes since the 70s—and that is the point of the long term studies that happen at RMBL.

“Our counts have shown that many years there are zero flowers here because of frost,” Inouye said, as he counted Aspen sunflowers on a hillside he’s been studying since the late 70s.

He said this could be happening because the snow is melting earlier, and so the plants are starting to grow earlier—only to be killed by a late frost.

“That’s showed us, among other things, that one of the consequences of climate change is that we’re seeing more frost damage than we’re used to,” Inouye said. “So we’re losing some of the plants we’re trying to study.”

In the same plot of land, Inouye is also seeing more damage caused by deer eating the sunflowers. He said this could be a consequence of deer learning that they can escape predators if they live near areas where humans live—meaning, the laboratory.

Inouye studies not only wildflowers in the valley—he also studies hummingbirds. He bands the birds, with the permission of federal and state governments, so when they are caught, they can be identified and studied. He has been doing this research since 1972.

“If we keep catching that bird, or someone else catches it, we’ll begin to get some ideas as to how long they live and where they go,” Inouye said. “They’re sentinels of what’s happening in the world—these birds are migrating all the way from Mexico, so if we have a healthy population of hummingbirds here during the summer, that means they’re doing OK down in Mexico during the winter.”

He said this gives researchers an idea of the health of ecosystems that are on the bird’s migratory path.

Long-term research, like Inouye’s, is what that Rocky Mountain Research Laboratory has been all about since it started in 1928. To learn more about the lab, go to their website: http://www.rmbl.org

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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