Sunday, August 13, 2017

If at First You Don't Succeed ...

Near the top of the Rockies in search of a ptarmigan.
From the very beginning as I started thinking about a trip to Colorado, I looked forward to this day.  This was the day I was heading up to the top of the mountain looking for two special targets:  a White-tailed Ptarmigan and a Brown-capped Rosy-Finch.  Leaving as little to chance as possible, I had hired Carl Bendorf of Colorado Birding Adventures to help me find the two wonderful birds.  Carl and I had exchanged numerous emails as he did everything he could to understand my objectives, give me advice on specific targets, and plan a successful experience for me.  Now it was time to meet him, so I stepped out of my room and into the wind.  I had read in a park brochure that the temperature at the top of Trail Ridge Road could be 30 - 40 degrees colder than in Estes Park, and that I could expect brisk winds.  They weren't lying.

Near Medicine Bow Curve at the top of Trail Ridge Road.

Carl's plan was simple.  We would grab some food for a picnic lunch in the park and head straight for the top.  That part went well.  We reached Medicine Bow Curve  - at just over 11,600 feet - before any other hikers, and ours was the only vehicle parked at the trail head.  I stepped out of the truck ... and got blown backward a step or two before I steadied myself.  Carl grabbed his spotting scope, and we headed out on the trail which was little more than a narrow ribbon cut across a steep mountainside.  The wind slammed back at us with every step as if the mountain begrudged our presence.  At one point Carl's scope toppled over, and only quick reflexes kept it from tumbling away from us.  A few American Pipits could be seen hopping across snowy patches here and there, but there were no other birds.  We made a solid effort, but there was nothing to be seen.  Eventually, cold and wind-beaten, we surrendered and made our way back to the truck.  I could tell that Carl was really disappointed that we didn't find our targets, but that's birding at its very heart.  Sometimes Mother Nature just doesn't want to give up her treasures.  You need to be willing to earn them. 

American Pipit, looking far more colorful than those we see in Florida.

We still had a good chunk of the day ahead of us - and I had hired Carl for two days - so I felt like we still had much to do.  We had just started down the mountain when a brown blur flew across our front and disappeared over the edge on our left.  "Rosy-Finch!" I could hear the excitement in Carl's voice.  We pulled over quickly, hopped out of the truck and started down the hill.  We scanned the hillside from the little grassy spots to the snow banks but again we had no luck.  The little bird had kept going. 

The landscape might look barren, but it isn't.  Scattered wildflowers provide a burst of color.

Certainly, this had not been a lucky day so far, but I have to admit that it was an exhilarating experience.  This flatlander from Florida was having a wonderful time in wild conditions and in great company.  Just being able to pursue a hobby like birding, that took me to these heights and conditions, is such a privilege.  So why complain when you're doing something you love?

 With that thought in mind, and while constantly exclaiming to Carl about how thrilled I was, I turned around and realized that I had to climb back up the slope, and that my asthma was not cooperating.  The thin air, the altitude, and my excitement were conspiring against my lungs.  I was reduced to walking a few steps, then resting and breathing deeply before trudging a few more paces up the hill.  Finally I reached the truck, my inhaler, and some hot coffee supplied by Carl.  After a few more minutes my breathing got back to normal and I was ready to get back to birding.  Meanwhile, note to self:  Don't do stupid!

This Townsend's Solitaire was not afraid of the wind.
Back on Trail Ridge Road we made our way down the mountain, stopping at a few pullouts along the way.  We found a Townsend's Solitaire (above) at one and a Western Tanager (below) at another, but it was obvious that the wind kept most birds hunkered down somewhere. 

Western Tanager, a spectacular bird in a spectacular setting.
Eventually we turned onto Endovalley Road and drove straight to the campground.  And here, our luck finally changed.  I got a quick look at a Wilson's Warbler in a dense thicket.  A Steller's Jay foraged along the creekside.  A Mountain Chickadee skittered from tree to tree just over our heads.  Just outside the campground Carl hit the brakes and pulled over.  "Did you hear that?  MacGillivray's Warbler!"  I hadn't heard a thing other than the wind causing constant static in my hearing aids.  I scrambled out of the truck and followed him back up the road.  We pished and waited as the sound got closer - at least according to Carl.  And then I could hear it too!  Suddenly the gorgeous little creature popped up, posed and then scurried for cover.  I had dipped on MacGillivray's on several previous western trips, and if not for Carl's ears, I would have missed this one too.  Instead I got a great look at my third lifer of the trip and a photo as well.

MacGillivray's Warbler

 We stopped for lunch at a nice picnic area.  While we ate we were entertained by a Black-billed Magpie that hung out near our table hoping for a handout.  A Warbling Vireo sang from the bushes along the edge of the picnic area and a Red-naped Sapsucker flew to a tree right next to the table. 

Steller's Jay at Endovalley.

 Next Carl took me to Beaver Meadows where once again his ears paid off for me.  "Listen, there's a Dusky Flycatcher nearby!"  He described what I should be listening for.  I pulled out my phone and opened the Sibley app to hear it for myself.  Suddenly, Carl pointed and I got my bins on it for just a second or two ... but sound and sight together meant another life bird!  What a great day!

Western Wood-Pewee

 In quick succession we saw a Mountain Bluebird, a Dark-eyed (Gray-headed) Junco, a Chipping Sparrow, a Western Wood-Pewee, a Pygmy Nuthatch and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Soon we reached Carl's target area.  Some patience and a little luck later, we were rewarded when a female Williamson's Sapsucker flew into a nearby tree and a male winged its way directly over our heads.  That was my third lifer of the day!

Lincoln's Sparrow at Cub Lake Trail

 We made two final stops before we called it a day.  Along the trail to Cub Lake we watched a herd of over 75 elks, all females with their young, grazing in the meadow bordering the path.  Along the creek we also found a Spotted Sandpiper.  And then we visited a YMCA camp - a really, really nice YMCA camp - where we found Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Pine Siskins, and Band-tailed Pigeons (a species I had only seen once before and at great distance).  So what started out as an exciting but somewhat frustrating day ended with three life birds and about 36 species ... and I had Carl's expertise for one more day.

These Yellow-bellied Marmots watched us search for the ptarmigan.

 The next morning started much like the day before - cool and cloudless - but with one exception.  There was no wind in Estes Park!  Could we possibly be that lucky at the top of the mountain as well?  We stopped to buy our lunches and headed up the mountain, reaching the summit while it was still early.  When we stepped out of the truck we were greeted by a perfect birding day, cold, sunny and still.  Once again we headed out on the narrow trail, this time crossing the first meadow and making our way around the curve in the mountainside.  Then, while watching a White-crowned Sparrow, a reddish brown blur flashed across our field of vision and landed back down the trail about fifty feet to our right as we glanced up the hill.  I got my binoculars up and basked in the sight of a Brown-capped Rosy-Finch!  I felt like dancing an Irish jig.  I wasn't even upset that the bird flew off before I could reach for my camera.  I'm a birder, not a photographer, and that long look was more than satisfying.

White-tailed Ptarmigan near Medicine Bow Curve at the top of Trail Ridge Road

Farther up the trail, Carl stopped and said we were in the right spot.  This was where he had seen a ptarmigan a few days earlier.  Mother Nature must have been in a good mood because our patience and persistence were rewarded.  Suddenly, a White-tailed Ptarmigan flew down the mountain, circled us, and landed on a boulder at the edge of a steep dropoff.  It watched us with apparent curiosity as we edged a little closer to examine a bird I've wanted to see since I began birding in 2001.  I snapped off about fifty photos, took an even longer look, and then grabbed the camera for another 25 shots.  We high-fived and shook hands and, yes, I whooped and hollered a bit too.  The ptarmigan took it all in, no doubt thinking that humans were an odd sort.

Carl Bendorf of Colorado Birding Adventures and the White-tailed Ptarmigan.  Can you see it?

 To be honest, the rest of the afternoon is a bit of a blur.  We traveled south to Wild Basin where we found three types of nuthatches (White-breasted, Red-breasted, and Pygmy) and two types of Kinglets (Ruby- and Golden-crowned).  Back at the YMCA camp we got more looks at Pine Siskins, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and Band-tailed Pigeons.  We also had the good fortune to see a Cassin's Finch at a feeder - only my second ever Cassin's Finch.

Cassin's Finch at the YMCA Camp

 Early that evening we joined up with Scott Rashid, Director of the Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute.  We met him at his home where we watched a multitude of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds buzz around his head like they recognized an old friend.  Scott talked to us about his specialty - the small owls of the Rockies.  Then he took us to a site where a pair of Northern Pygmy Owls had been attempting to nest.  Unfortunately we found the nest abandoned.  Nonetheless, I came away impressed by Scott's dedication and by the work of his institute.  If you're interested, Google the name of his institute and learn something about his work.

And so ended my two days with Carl Bendorf.  Months earlier I had sent him a list of my target birds, and he had been instrumental in finding six of the seven lifers I had chalked up to that point.  Hiring him had been a really, really good move.  I had seen a bunch of great birds and found a friend in the bargain.  So remember ... Carl Bendorf, Colorado Birding Adventures.  Worth it!!

If you're interested, here are some more photos from the two days with Carl in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Enjoy!

The view from the trailhead at Medicine Bow Curve

From the top of the mountain looking down on Endovalley

More wildflowers from where I saw the ptarmigan

Bighorn Sheep feeding on the side of the mountain

A coyote watching the Bighorn Sheep

A White-crowned Sparrow at 11,000 feet.

Pygmy Nuthatch at Beaver Meadows

Broad-tailed Hummingbird at the YMCA camp

Mallard in the creek along Cub Lake Trail

And a final look at the star of the show, the White-tailed Ptarmigan.

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.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Colorado 2017: Pawnee National Grasslands

Purple, orange and yellow wildflowers decorated the Pawnee National Grasslands

For over a decade I have wanted to take a birding trip to Colorado.  I finally got that chance in June.  It was a bit surreal to climb out of my bed in Gainesville at 2:00 AM and get a lifer in Colorado that afternoon, but that's exactly what happened!

The arrival in Denver was on time, the rental car was ready, and I immediately headed out towards Greeley.  I was fortunate in that Carl Bendorf of Colorado Birding Adventures had already given me the location of my first target bird, the Mountain Plover.  It was located in the eastern - and less frequently birded - portion of the Pawnee National Grasslands (PNG).  I hadn't even planned on entering that side of the park, but Carl's tip pointed me in the right direction.

The PNG covers nearly 200,000 acres in north in northeast Colorado.  It's divided into two portions, east and west, with a non-park corridor running up the middle centered on County Road 89.  Furthermore, much of the "park" is actually private lands, so most of the birding has to be done from a car.  Also, you might think of a park that's called a "grasslands" as being a vast expanse of just that - grass.  As I discovered, you would be wrong.  Instead, it's a sea of short and tall grass, cattle pastures, wildflowers, rocky fields and a dizzying array of plants - over 400 varieties!

A Pronghorn grazing on the Pawnee National Grasslands
As soon as I arrived it was evident that I wasn't on a Florida prairie any more.  Practically the first bird I saw made that very clear.
Lark Bunting

The Lark Bunting had been a lifer only a year earlier when I saw a small flock in Amidon, North Dakota.  Now they were in the road, on fence posts, and perched atop small bushes throughout the grasslands.  A gregarious little bird, they were rarely alone, often flitting about in groups of ten, twenty, or more.

Back home in Gainesville, my birding colleagues held a special field trip while I was flying towards Colorado.  Over 50 of them gathered to take a small hike to a protected area where Alachua County's only Burrowing Owls resided.  I regretted missing that trip, but I had some luck of my own.  While searching for the target bird, I found several Burrowing Owls like this one who seems to be munching on a grasshopper.

It was already getting late, and my body was still on Eastern Time, but I had one more bird to find.  Fortunately, I found it just past the owls.  The photograph below is not great, but it is a life bird!

Mountain Plover, my first lifer of the trip.

That first day certainly ended on a high note!  The second day started with almost as much excitement.  Before entering the PNG, I made a stop at the Crow Valley Recreation Area.  The birding here was fantastic despite a very stiff wind.  In fact the wind was strong enough to provide some entertaining moments.  Several Western Kingbirds were battling the winds while trying to feed on flying insects.  One Kingbird took off diving into the wind, but was immediately blown backwards.  It spun once, turning its tail into the wind, and sped away about as fast as a Kingbird has ever flown.  Here is that talented flyer:

The real thrill of my time at Crow Valley was that this was the first - and only - three oriole day I've ever been around.  In a small area near the creek, a Baltimore Oriole stopped in a tree a few feet above me, an Orchard Oriole flew around the trees across the creek, and this Bullock's Oriole darted about the treetops near the road.

Once in the PNG, the birding got even busier.  First there were Barn Swallows on the wires of the fences:

Then there was a Cassin's Sparrow perching up, giving me the opportunity for the best look at that species that I've ever had.

And everywhere I looked there were Western Meadowlarks singing their lovely melody for all to hear.

Now let me digress from the bird life of the grasslands for a moment.  If you ever decide to visit PNG, try to do so when the wildflowers are in bloom.  While I was there, the park was awash in color.  Look at the images at the top of this blog and those of the Burrowing Owls and Mountain Plover.  I can see why the Native Americans loved this land.  It sustained their lifestyle while surrounding them with its majesty and beauty.

Butterflies love it too and add their own splash of color:

Okay, back to the birding.  I had one primary target for the day.  I wanted to find a McCown's Longspur.  That proved to be harder than I expected.  I drove mile after mile without seeing one.  Certainly there were great birds everywhere like this Grasshopper Sparrow:

And I was thrilled to see this Horned Lark in the grass!

And then things got better when another one popped up on a fence post showing the world its "horns".

But finally, late in the afternoon, in what was practically my last hour in the grasslands, there it was.  A McCown's Longspur landed just a few feet in front of the car.  And then a second one joined it.  Then another ... and another!  It was lifer #2 for the trip, and a perfect ending for my day and a half in the Pawnee National Grasslands.