icy creek with beaver dam across it on a gray day

Signs of Life in Willow Spring Open Space – December, 2023

Fields of Gold on a Cold, Dry Day

The weak sun peeking through hazy skies didn’t provide much warmth on a chilly day in early December.  Although the dominant colors were gold and brown, rather than the lush green of spring and summer, Willow Spring Open Space was alive, especially with predators!

The grasses were a patchwork of gold colors, with rabbitbrush shrubs rising above the grass in the foreground, a rust-colored line of licorice shrubs, the brown seed heads of cutleaf teasel, with the bright gold sea of cattails behind them.  The Englewood Dam, with its array of grasses makes up the background.

stripes of brown, red and gold in a field
Shades of Gold

The tall grasses from the good spring rains have made sledding more difficult this year – in the first big snow at the end of October, the 7” of snow we received didn’t cover the grass enough to allow for sledding at all!

path of white snow with tall grasses on either side sticking up from the snow
Snow in the tall grass, October 2023

The Rocky Mountain Juniper trees, with their bright blue berries brought a bit of color to the landscape.

green conifer branches covered in light blue berries
Juniper tree berries

Walking through the Open Space, one of the first things I noticed was that the beaver ponds are mostly frozen over with a layer of ice.   This tied in with the Beaver Full moon, which was Monday, 11/27.  It is the second to last full moon of the year, and legend has it that this is when beavers start to move into their lodges after shoring up their dams and stocking up on food supplies as their ponds are icing over.

wide creek with beaver dam of sticks going across it, the water has turned to ice
Ice on beaver pond

With the ponds freezing over, there were not many ducks in sight – only a couple of mallards that found a bit of open water.  A few red-winged blackbird calls could be heard, along with the calls of goldfinches and house finches.  These were just a few of the approximately 17 species of birds year-round at Willow Spring Open Space. However, there were predator birds out looking for a meal. 


A Northern Shrike was in a tree overlooking the cattail marsh.  Northern Shrikes (Lanius excubitor) are small predatory birds about 10” long with a gray back, a dark mask around the eyes and a hooked beak.  They eat large insects, rodents, lizards and even small birds.  The familiar silhouette of a Red-Tailed Hawk could be also seen in the middle of the marsh, looking for a meal. 

small gray bird with a black mask across eyes at tree top
Northern Shrike
bird with sharp beak on a branch
Red-Tailed Hawk in winter

In addition to predator birds, I saw signs of predatory mammals – which could have been coyotes, foxes and bobcats.  Near an animal trail that leads into the cattails, there were recent tracks of both coyotes and bobcats, and a lot of fresh scat.  While coyotes (Canis latrans) and foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are in the dog family and bobcats (Felis rufus) are in the cat family, they share similar diets, feeding on rabbits and small rodents. The coyotes and foxes are also scavengers and will eat carrion along with fruits and berries. 

dirt trail disappearing into tall grasses and cattails
Animal trail disappearing tinto cattails

With a careful naturalist perspective, there is a lot to see in the Willow Spring Open Space, even in winter!

Note: I know of other people that also keep an eye on Willow Spring Open Space and areas beyond.  One is Wolf VanZandt, who writes a nice blog exploring Denver, and has included the Open Space in his blog on Sunday, July 30, 2023.  http://adventuringbcc.blogspot.com/2023/07/dry-creek-station-to-arapahoe-station.html?m=0.  He had lots of posts about exploring different areas in our great city!

References and Further Reading