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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What a dream trip!
    Congratulations on SIX life birds. Fantastic! And the scenery ain't bad, either.


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