Yesterday my partner and I went down to Colorado Springs to see a friend, and then went hiking at the Paint Mines Interpretive Park (PDF brochure) in Calhan, which we’ve been talking about checking out for a while now. Paint Mines is a little-advertised El Paso County Park, with only 750 acres and 4 miles of trail. Despite this, it’s weirdly like a pocket of Utah or South Dakota badlands dropped into the Colorado prairie, with pastel hoodoos eroded from the 55-million-year-old Dawson Arkose, a formation composed of coarse sandstone, conglomerate, and shale. If you go, I’d recommend a cool day (even heading into autumn–today was tolerable but still a bit warm), as there’s no shade and the clay is very reflective. In late afternoon when we went, the sunlight was backlighting some of the more spectacular areas, but I suspect this would be true in morning as well (but morning is likely to be less busy). Almost everyone we saw was blithely ignoring the injunction not to climb on the hoodoos: seriously, if you want them to be there, don’t climb on them. They’re more fragile than they look, and climbing on them risks not only damaging them but slipping and falling yourself. Anyway, on to the pictures. The park didn’t look like much from the tiny parking lot, just a lot of prairie. I think the most common insect we saw were beeflies (Family Bombyliidae), these fuzzy little nectar feeders: I’m not sure what this flower is, but the beeflies liked it: Once we got a ways down the trail, we could see valleys full of hoodoos, like inset badlands. In the distance here you can see some electrical wires–while there were angles at which you could pretend to be out in the wilderness, there are actually roads and even houses fairly close to the park: Up close, the hoodoos are pretty fantastic. Hoodoos form when a resistant caprock layer covers soft, easily eroded layers of rock, allowing these pillars to form. There was a lot of yucca, which had gone to seed. As a geology major in college, yucca was not my favorite plant: the sword-like leaves are viciously sharp and easily capable of cutting you. But yucca does have an interesting relationship with two genera of moths in the family Prodoxidae: the yucca can only be pollinated by these moths, and the moth caterpillars can only eat yucca seeds. (Alas, we did not think to look for caterpillars.) In addition to hoodoos, parts of the Dawson erode into these soft hills and gullies: We found a Western Harvester Ant (Pogonomyrmex occidentalis) mound. I tried to take some pictures and was pleasantly surprised at how decently some came out. I’m pretty fond of harvester ants, which collect all kinds of fascinating things from seeds (for food) to tiny fossils (they collect rocks of a specific size to build their nest). When I was in graduate school, one of my classmates organized a small exhibit on harvester ants and paleontology, for which I wrote the accompanying website, where you can learn more about harvester ants. This harvester ant is carrying a typical-sized pebble for adding to the nest. We saw a couple ants carrying yucca seeds like this one (and struggling with them): After that we headed back around towards some of the more colorful hoodoos. Along the way I was pretty excited to spot this beautiful little beetle, and somewhat less excited to find that it was a Spotted Cucumber Beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata), an agricultural pest, although at least one that seems to be native. I love the tiny punctured texture of the elytra (wing covers). I have no idea how one identifies cacti: Not quite Bryce Canyon, but spectacularly colorful all the same: It was getting late, so we called it a day and headed back to the parking lot. At one point the sun happened to hit the hillside at exactly the right angle to highlight spiderwebs–marching in a curving line up the hillside and scattered around elsewhere. The line followed a crack in the group (opportunistic spiders). You can only see three webs in this photo, but the line continued up the hill. Up close, they turned out to be funnel webs, produced by spiders in the family Agelenidae. Despite the common name, these spiders are not closely related to the Sydney Funnel-web Spider (Atrax robustus), a medically dangerous tarantula in the family Hexathelidae. Agelenids are commonly known as grass spiders, and generally harmless to humans. And one last insect picture to round out the day–rabbitbrush is one of my favorite plants (along with milkweed) for the diversity of insects it attracts. This tiny, fuzzy, beetle (I think it’s a beetle) seemed to be quite happy wallowing in delicious pollen. Mmmm, pollen.