Sunday, July 30, 2017

Estes Park and a Southern Slice of Rocky Mountain National Park

The view from the park on the southern shore of Lake Estes.

The drive to Estes Park was gorgeous at times but uneventful from a birding perspective.  I circled Boyd Lake through a series of detours that limited access to the lake at some spots and found very few birds on the water in others.  Loads of Barn Swallows swarmed above the surface, but I saw little else.  I also checked out a small portion of the Big Thompson Trail along the edge of a baseball/softball complex.  Ospreys nested in the light towers over the fields, House Wrens scolded me from the shrubs along the river, and American Robins dotted the outfield grass.  A lone Killdeer worked along the edge of the trail.  Perhaps the most interesting sight, however, was of a yellow-green softball lodged in the tree roots under some shrubs on the other side of the river, a testament to a mighty blast from some anonymous hero. Then I stopped at what is labeled "Jayhawk Ponds" on Google Maps, but I know that isn't the name I saw on the sign.  A small family of Canada Geese occupied one pond and a Bullock's Oriole perched briefly in a nearby tree, but that was all.

Mallards on Lake Estes

Once in Big Thompson Canyon, the wind really picked up.  I felt like I was driving uphill while being pushed back downhill.  The river was high and loud, churning its way down the mountain and filling the narrow canyon with its booming voice.  The wind kept the birds in hiding except for a single Common Raven that windsurfed on by at a fairly high speed.  Other than that, the only thing of note was a memorial to two police officers who gave their lives trying to save others during a flash flood in the canyon.  It was a sobering reminder of the power of nature and the dedication of our often under-appreciated police.

I reached Estes Park late in the afternoon but before check-in time at the hotel.  So I drove through town and eventually to a park that hugs the southern shore of Lake Estes.  I arrived just ahead of a light rain that threatened to soak me but instead just sprinkled a little bit.  I watched a Black-billed Magpie feeding in the grass and enjoyed the aerial antics of a Violet-green Swallow that stayed in the area for ten minutes or so.  Across the water a few Canada Geese ignored the rain while gliding gracefully along searching for food.  A Mountain Chickadee landed in a tree right next to me, a Bald Eagle swooped in low over the lake and snatched a fish for dinner, and Mallards (above) enjoyed a day of the water.  I looked at the stunning scenery and the beautiful clear water of the lake and thought I had found a slice of heaven on earth.

Cliff Swallow at the nest

The birding day ended in the fields below the dam on the eastern end of the lake.  A Mountain Bluebird watched me from the power lines while I enjoyed seeing a Cliff Swallow (above) make multiple trips to its nest.  I took the photo from a distance, so it's not the best quality shot, but I didn't want to risk getting any closer and disturbing its work.

Then as I was leaving the area, a Tree Swallow landed on a nest box and posed for me (below).

Tree Swallow - clean white and electric blue.

That was the last bird of a nice day.  I got to sleep early that night.  I was tired and ready for sleep and already anticipating my first day in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Moraine Park off Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

Early the next morning I stepped out of my room and immediately felt it.  Wind.  A stiff wind hurried the clouds along while threatening to shake loose every leaf and needle on the surrounding trees.  Any birder will tell you that wind often leads to a really bad birding day, but you don't travel to a place like RMNP and then stay inside because it's windy, so I headed out as quickly as I could.  My goal for the day was to bird along Bear Lake Road, staying to the south of the more heavily visited areas of the park.  It turned out to be a really good plan.

Big Thompson River near Moraine Park

I took  US 36 into the park before turning south onto Bear Lake Road.  I didn't get very far.  Almost immediately I pulled to the edge to scope out the meadow below.  Near Beaver Creek an Elk grazed in the grass while its calf slept in the sun.  Swallows, both Violet-green and Cliff, dashed along using the wind like a sleighs on an icy slope.  Western Meadowlarks sang from both sides of the road.  In one bush along the road I saw a Western Wood-Pewee get chased away by a White-crowned Sparrow that was then joined by a Broad-tailed Hummingbird.  Meanwhile a Northern Flicker peeked at me from inside a bare shrub.

A Black-billed Magpie along Bear Lake Road
White-crowned Sparrow near Bear Lake Road

 I made a quick drive up to the Moraine Park Campground, but there was no place to park and I could see few birds from the car.  A red-naped Sapsucker was the sole exception.  Unfortunately I couldn't get a photo.  Next I drove to the Cub Lake trail head, but again there were no parking spaces.  Eventually I stopped near the beginning of the road to Fern Lake and parked near the restrooms.  I thoroughly enjoyed walking along this road.  It was quiet, picturesque, and sweet smelling.  A Lincoln's Sparrow hopped up on a fence wire long enough for me to take a photo.  Two rangers on horseback passed me on the trail, heading to a cabin up at Fern Lake.  A Hairy Woodpecker stopped by to add to the excitement.

Two park rangers heading "up to the cabin at Fern Lake."

Aspens lining the trail to Fern Lake
This House Wren voiced its indignation at our presence near the Fern Lake Trail

A Lincoln's Sparrow popped up to see what all the fuss was about.

I returned to Bear Lake Road and turned again to the south.  My next stop was Hollowell Park.  I'll tell you now that I fell in love with this spot.  It's stunningly beautiful with a view of snow-capped mountains, a wide expanse of meadow dappled with wildflowers and edged by a creekside marsh, and a small trail that hugs a tall pine forest.  A Steller's Jay checked out the picnic area and a Red-tailed Hawk soared overhead.  Then a Green-tailed Towhee popped up and made the day even better than it already was.

Green-tailed Towhee in Hollowell Park
Elk at Hollowell Park
Farther along the road I pulled into the Sprague Lake picnic area.  This is another really delightful spot.  A short trail with circles the small lake and benches are scattered throughout the easy walk.  Mallards swam on the lake and a variety of swallows added to the scene.  Near the end of the loop I got excited when I saw a songbird with a yellow throat.  I got my binoculars on it to find ... a Yellow-rumped Warbler!  And this was not the pale, washed out and gray throated Yellow-rumped Warbler we are used to seeing at home in Florida.  This one was the western "Audubon's" in its fresh breeding plumage and looking good.  My photo doesn't do it justice, but I'll remember this bird next winter when I see a bird and think, "Oh, just another Yellow-rump."

Yellow-rumped Warbler at Sprague Lake

The birding day ended at Bear Lake, elevation 9475 feet.  This spot was jammed with people, several of whom were annoyingly loud.  I do not understand someone making an effort to reach a spot that is so peaceful and then turning it into anything but with loud music and shouting at people who are only a few feet away.  Anyway, the people and the noise kept the birds well hidden so I saw nothing new.  Still, the stop was worth it.  Bear Lake itself is stunning and is surrounded by impressive mountain peaks.  And I was also happy to note that even at that altitude, by asthma was not acting up.  I knew that the next morning I would be over 2000 feet higher, so this was a hopeful sign for me.

Bear Lake at 9,475 feet.

There was one other incident on the day worth noting.  Near the intersection of Moraine Park and Bear Lake Roads I saw a small flycatcher that I could not identify with confidence.  I wear hearing aids, and the only sound the bird made sounded like static in my ears.  The really upsetting part is that there is a very good chance that it would have been a life bird for me.  I took the photo below from the car with traffic building up behind me and the wind buffeting the vehicle.  If anyone cares to hazard a guess, leave a comment below.

If you have an opinion, leave a comment below.


  1. Simply, "wow"!
    I love Florida, but must admit the mountains sure are gorgeous! Thank you for sharing a bit of that crisp air!

  2. Your mystery flycatcher looks to me like a Vermilion.

    1. Thanks for the hint, Bill. I never considered Vermilion because Sibley's range map suggests that it is considered rare anywhere in Colorado.


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