Marble: A Rocky Mountain Naturalist's Paradise
Amidst the stunning scenery of Marble and the Upper Crystal River watershed, classic alpine flora and fauna unfold for both the amateur and professional naturalist. Leaving the occasional ponderosa pines behind as you proceed upvalley from the numerous beaver ponds and waterfowl marshes surrounding Beaver Lake into one of Colorado’s most verdant valleys, you encounter mature aspen forests interlaced with majestic dark timber dominated by Engleman Spruce and sub-alpine fir.
The rocky pinnacle of Whitehouse Mountain and cliff faces of Sheep Mountain tower over Lizard Lake as you proceed toward wildflower-laden alpine meadows kept lush and green by afternoon summer thundershowers. The thriving ecosystem surrounding Marble is home to a wide variety of animals and birds, large and small.
Birds Bird watchers will rejoice in the variety of species in and near Marble. The coots, redwings, magpies, geese, and ducks of the valley floor give way to the Stellar’s jays, camp robbers, broad-tailed hummers, violet-green swallows, nuthatches and woodpeckers of the lower sub-alpine habitat of scrub oak and virgin aspen. The serious birder can, with patience or the aide of a local guide, predictably add to one’s life list three different grosbeaks, the western tanager, ruby-crowned kinglet, Townsend’s solitaire, the olive-sided flycatcher, the blue grouse and even the water ouzel or dipper which dives into rapids and walks on the stream bottom hunting for insect larvae. Raptor lovers will thrill at the sight of golden eagles and the occasional bald eagle, red-tailed hawks, kestrels, Merlin’s falcons, goshawks, marsh harriers, and many other species.
Predators There are many different carnivores in the Marble area. Black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, pine marten, bobcats, and red fox range from the valley floor to the high alpine terrain. There are several packs of coyotes that sometimes can be heard howling and yipping close to town. A family of red foxes makes its den somewhere near the Marble airstrip. Black bears often visit town in the spring and summer, and visitors and residents alike are reminded to keep their garbage inside or under lock and key until the morning that trash is collected. (There are no longer grizzlies in the Marble area.)
Mountain lions are seldom seen, but they prey on the abundant herds of deer and elk in the Marble area and are definitely present in the ecosystem. Raccoons patrol the riverbanks and lakeshores at night.
Small Game Small game such as yellow-bellied marmots and picas can be found on the rocky slopes surrounding Marble. Abert’s squirrels will often chatter at visitors to the dark timber forests, where they are hunted by pine martens. Snowshoe hares are prolific at the higher elevations, and cottontail rabbits can be found in the oak brush and sagebrush of the valley floor. Blue grouse are a delightful game bird about the size of a small chicken that can be found at elevations ranging from 7,500 feet to as high as 11,500 feet. Their smaller cousin, the white-tailed ptarmigan, is found at elevations of 11,500 feet and above.
Big Game Elk are the predominant big game species of the Marble ecosystem, and the herd is thriving. The Marble herd is wild and is hunted, so they normally don’t stand around posing for pictures like the elk found in Rocky Mountain National Park or other places. In the winters, they are often seen crossing the county road or foraging on the oak brush hillsides surrounding town. In the summer, the elk often graze above timberline. Mule deer are often found right in town during the summer months, so visitors and locals alike are reminded to drive carefully so that the does and fawns don’t get hit by cars.
Sharp-eyed visitors will occasionally spot white dots on the steep rocky faces of Chair Mountain, Prospect Mountain, or Ragged Peak, which will turn out to be a herd of mountain goats. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep come down to the meadows near Penny Hot Springs in the winter, and in the summer and fall, they can be found near Avalanche Pass, on Elk Mountain, and in the Carbonate Creek drainage.
Whether you are likely to be armed with camera, field guides and sketch books or just an insatiable curiosity, slowing down for the opportunity to observe or photograph any aspect of the huge array of species and specimens at arms length in the wilderness surrounding Marble, can fill many hours of exploration among the high alpine peaks.