Monday, August 28, 2006

Rocky Mountain High

Beth and I have returned from our trip to Colorado and what a wonderful trip it was! We spent 7 nights in Vail and 2 nights in Estes Park, right outside of beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park. We spent plenty of time enjoying the scenery, the flora, and the fauna that the Rockies have to offer.

This was our first experience at any sort of real elevation and, unfortunately, Beth got a bad case of altitude sickness the first day. It was amazing how out of breath you get just walking up some stairs. Our condo in Vail was on the third floor with no elevator, but it was a great place.

The first morning I did some birding from our window and found Stellar's Jay, a bunch of Black-capped Chickadees, Juncos, and some very close Pine Siskin's feeding on thistle. The whistle-like humming of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds permeated the morning air. In a small patch of woods behind the hotel I found a House Finch, Bewick's Wren, and a Western Wood-Pewee.

The next day we decided to take a hike on the Bighorn Creek Trail that was recommended in Colorado's Best Wildflower Hikes. Supposedly an "easy to moderate" trail, it was a lot more difficult due to the elevation. We found many species of wildflowes among the gorgeous aspen groves, but it was obvious that we were about a month late for the peak bloom. Bird-wide there wasn't too much to see. Chickadees, Siskins, and Stellar's Jays were about all we could find. A flyover group of Band-tailed Pigeons was a nice surprise and the distant tooting of what I think was a Northern Pygmy-Owl was very interesting.

One of the most ubiquitous birds we found in Colorado was the Black-billed Magpie. These brilliant black, white, and irridescent blue corvids were seen frequently along the roads and even around garbage cans. It's a shame this gorgeous bird is so commonplace. The appreciation of their beauty may be lost on the locals there.


There was no lack of Magpies in Colorado


The third day we took the gondola to the top of one of the mountains where I found my first two new birds of the trip. The first was a Mountain Chickadee doing a scratchy impersonation of a Black-capped. The second newcomer was a Brewer's Sparrow perched on a sign at the top of the mountain overlook.

I hit up a few spots that I had heard were good for birding. Pine Siskens were EVERYWHERE. It was unreal. They were by far the most abundant birds with Black-capped Chickadees a close second. I went to several spots that were supposed to be good for American Dipper, but I completely struck out. Every wide, rocky stream I could find was Dipper-less. The "Water Ouzel" would elude me for the rest of the trip. The birding spots around Vail didn't turn up any new birds, but we were awarded with great views of Yellow-bellied Marmot, Mule Deer, and a very accomodating Beaver.


Red Crossbill


Our time in Vail was wonderful, complete with a hot air balloon ride and a rodeo. Friday came and we were off to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). RMNP is known for its herds of Elk and Bighorn Sheep as well as having the highest, continues paved road at 12,183 feet - known as the Trail Ridge Road. Our plan was to take this road west to east ending in Estes Park. On the way to the park, we made a few stops at scenic roadside lookouts to look for flowers and birds. I was observant enough to spot some Mountain Bluebirds on a fencepost and a quick turnaround yielded some great views. A perched Swainson's Hawk added to the excitement. At another stop I was lucky to find a Green-tailed Towhee (the only one of the trip) and a Lark Bunting!


Mountain Bluebird!



Swainson's Hawk


A while later we made our way into the park. I don't know what it is about national parks, but I get a magical feeling when I enter them. It's sort of like a naturalist's Disney World. (Side note: Disney World itself isn't half bad for a naturalist. I got my lifer White Ibis, Moorhen, and Anhinga there!)

After paying the fee, we were on our way to Estes Park on the Trail Ridge Road. A few miles in we visited a lodge with a great gift shop (and 30% off Burt's Bees products!). They had an array of feeders frequented by very tame Pine Siskens, Chipmunks, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, and Cassin's Finches (lifer!).


Cassin's Finch



Siskins were everywhere!


Back on the road, we spotted a female Elk. Way cool! A little further up the road, another visitor's car alerted us to a Coyote frolicking in a field of grass. Even though they occur in NJ, I had never seen one in person. I'd seen plenty of scat, but never the beast in the flesh.

We wound our way through the roads higher and higher, following a map to several key points on the road that offered breathtaking views of the mountains. There was no civilization in sight. All we could see was the result of eons of glacial action.

The edge of the treeline was approaching in the distance. We made a stop at around 11,000 feet in authentic tundra habitat. The weather had dropped from 70 degrees to 50 degrees (at most). We walked a path out into the tundra. What a unique and amazing habitat. Wildflowers grew in miniature. Jagged rocks were strewn about. My first sightings on the tundra were a Vesper Sparrow and a pair of American Pipits. I searched in vain for White-tailed Ptarmigan, a very tough bird to find.


Top of the world, ma!


The wind and weather were quickly changing as we approached the Alpine Visitor's Center at around 12,000 feet! A large canyon behind the visitor's center held a herd of Mule Deer and some very distant Elk. I helped a few people to see the Elk in my binoculars and did my best to convince people that the much closer Mule Deer were not Elk. The much-hoped-for Brown-capped Rosy-finch didn't make an appearance. :( The weather began to turn nasty, so we decided to hit the road - but not before we found two Golden Eagles soaring high over the visitor's center. Beauties!

At around 10,000 feet, we stopped at a large curve in the road with a great lookout. A chorus of squeaks led us to a group of American Pika. These cute relatives of the rabbit were repeatedly running down the mountain and coming back up the mountain with a mouthful of grass. This grass is stored away to be food for the winter. A little ways down the path, a large bird popped up on the ledge - Clark's Nutcracker! This bird was obviously used to people and was very photogenic.


A friendly Clark's Nutcracker


We continued on our way down. A stop at the Endovalley Picnic Area didn't produce the hoped-for Woodpeckers and Sapsuckers that I was told could be there. Oh well. All of these great mammals and other bird sightings made up for it.

Leaving the park, the sun had returned as quickly as it left. A parking lot of people let us to a group of 50 Elk grazing in a field as dusk approached. It was a serene scene ripped from a nature painting. Bull Elk with huge, 5-foot wide antlers moved about the cows and young calfs. We made a last ditch effort to find some Bighorn Sheep, but luck was not with us.


A lovely group of Elk


The next day, our last day in Colorado, was spent around RMNP. In the morning, we hiked up to the spectacular Bear Lake and Emerald Lake before encountering a little rain. The hike was not as tough as our first hike, but the elevation really made you feel every step of it. The mirror lakes were a well-deserved payoff. Another payoff was the family of Blue Grouse that came amazingly close to us.


The reflection at Bear Lake



A very abiding Blue Grouse


In the afternoon, we drove the Old Fall River Road - the original road in the park - up to about 12,000 feet. On this narrow dirt road, it began to rain. The temperature on the car's thermometer began to drop. 55 degrees... 50... 45... sleet began to fall... 40... 35... the sleet became a blizzard of snow! Snow in August??? That's the mountains for you. We connected back to the main road and drove VERY carefully in the snow down to the bottom of the park. Again, the weather began to quickly improve and the temperature climbed back to the 50's. Our trip ended in a most stunning way. We spotted a small piece of a rainbow - a very bright rainbow where you could see all of ROY G. BIV. Winding around a corner, we spotted the other end of a rainbow which then materialized into a full blown rainbow stretching between two mountains. It was a fitting end to a wonderful trip.

Stay tuned for a look at some of the butterflies of the Rockies and for Beth's photos of the wildflowers we saw.


One end of a stunning rainbow

1 comment:

Mike said...

Congrats on a spectacular trip.