Mountaintop Birds


My husband and I aren’t the only ones who escape the heat by fleeing to high altitudes. A number of bird species do the same thing. Instead of migrating to the arctic, they head for the hills.

I was a first-year birder, a mere fledgling. Our local Audubon chapter was offering a trip to the high country. Of course I signed up. Surely there were amazing birds to be seen at such rarefied heights. I was expecting something new and exciting— a Williamson’s Sapsucker, perhaps, or one of the rosy-finches. Maybe we’d even spot a well-camouflaged ptarmigan!

We piled out of the cars at the top of the first pass, and I raised my binoculars to scan the scattered patches of melting snow and dwarfed willows. There! What as that moving in that patch of wildflowers? It’s a… it’s a… robin? I came all the way up here to see a robin? I have plenty of robins in my yard, munching on my gooseberries and chokecherries!

I’ve done plenty of mountaintop birding in the years since that first disappointment. I’ve seen more robins, as well as sapsuckers and rosy-finches, Red Crossbills, grouse, American Dippers, and other high altitude specialties. But the most common species, the ones we check off on every trip, are Dark-eyed Juncos and White-crowned Sparrows (top, bottom).

dark-eyed-junco_lavetaco_20100320_lah_0458nefI have read that juncos (left, below left) winter across most of the country and summer at higher latitudes or elevations. The question is, what altitude do these birds consider high? Since our property, at an elevation of 7,060 feet, is actually on the plains, I always considered “high” to be somewhere else—somewhere less flat perhaps. Besides, in our yard juncos are strictly winter birds.

Last month I visited a retreat center twenty minutes away and 450 feet higher than our property, but still technically on the high plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. What a difference that 450 feet makes. We saw juncos everywhere at the retreat center—in mid-July! There must be some way they decide how high is high enough. Clearly, at least this year in mid-Colorado, the dividing line is somewhere between 7,000 and 7,500 feet.

junco_costateforestsp_lah_8657Juncos may be common birds, but their taxonomy would give most birders a headache. There are at least six subspecies, with a huge and ongoing “vigorous discussion”  taking place over how much they interbreed, how different their DNA is, and whether or not they should be divided into separate species. Currently the “lumpers” are winning, but with new data that could easily change. Meanwhile, it’s all I can do to remember the differences between the Oregon and Slate-colored populations, or, even more subtly, between Gray-headed and Red-backed birds.

white-crowned-sparrow-juv_cottonwoodpass-co_lah_8440The White-crowned Sparrow is another bird that winters across the southern half of the country, and migrates into the arctic to breed. The only place you can see them year round is in the inter-mountain west and along the Pacific coast. There, it pays to learn what the juvenile (right) and first winter (below) birds look like.


It’s incredible to me that the same species that winters in such tropical climes as the Gulf Coast and Mexico can also withstand the cold and snow of places like northern Nevada and Utah, and the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps their willingness to eat a wide variety of foods, from insects to seeds to berries, helps them survive in such varied habitats.

I was even more astonished to learn that these birds can stay awake for up to two weeks at a time in order to migrate. Think of how useful that ability would be on long road trips. We could bird all day and drive all night!

mtevans-co_lah_4782rI’ve come a long way since I was frustrated by seeing a robin. Yes, I love to catch a glimpse of a sapsucker or crossbill, and I’m still waiting for my first ptarmigan sighting. But I can also sit contentedly and watch a pair of White-crowned Sparrows defend their territory and declare their faithfulness to one another. Or at least I’m content after I’ve taken a few dozen photos of the happy couple!

2 thoughts on “Mountaintop Birds

  1. Hi Leslie,

    My wife and I also watching birds in our garden; this weekend the first hummingbirds of the season showed up.

    Your robin tale reminds me once of when we traveled 30 miles to a state park to observe painted buntings in freezing cold weather (for Florida) and many restrictions. But we did see a few of the birds at a distance…

    A couple of weeks later a painted bunting came to our living room window bird feeder and we sat inside safe and warm watching him from three feet away.

    That’s our kind of birding.

    John Cowart

  2. I saw my one-and-only Painted Bunting on a trip to Florida one winter. We were at Corkscrew Swamp. The previous day had been in the 90s. The day we visited, the temperature dropped to 32!

    Unfortunately, we don’t normally get Painted Buntings in Colorado, but I can offer a nice view of the Pygmy Nuthatches, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Lesser Goldfinches from our dining room.

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