Here in Colorado, it’s the hottest summer in anyone’s memory. I’ve had a major case of birding ennui, canceling trip after trip when the mercury topped 100⁰F. The birds are smart enough to nap during the heat of the day, and I’m learning from their example.
However, when our Audubon chapter scheduled a trip up 14,265 Mt. Evans, I jumped at the chance. It’s not every day you can beat the heat and have a chance at a lifer, all on the same trip.
Our target birds included various high altitude species, including Red Crossbills, Williamson’s Sapsuckers, Brown-capped Rosy-finches, and (please God oh please) White-tailed Ptarmigan. I’d been searching for a ptarmigan for years, following the advice of those who had seen them high in Rocky Mountain National Park, 11,669 ft. Guanella Pass, and yes, even Mt. Evans. But I’d had nary a glimpse. It was my current “nemesis bird.”
Thunderstorms were predicted for the afternoon, so we planned an early start. (It’s important to be below the tree line before the lightning arrives!) We made our pit stop at Echo Lake, next to the Mt. Evans toll road entrance station. A quick inspection of the lake yielded up our first birds of the trip—a pair of Barrow’s Golden-eyes leading a string of ducklings on the calm water. We also picked up some White-crowned Sparrows, a Spotted Sandpiper, Steller’s Jays, and a pair of Clark’s Nutcrackers, but didn’t linger. We’d stop again on the way home.
Then we headed up the mountain. The road narrowed as it climbed. I tried not to dwell on the sheer drop-off inches from our tires, preferring to scrutinize the rocks for that elusive ptarmigan I so desperately wanted to see.
Our next stop was Summit Lake (at 12, 830, it’s still shy of the summit), where we piled out of our cars and grabbed our binos for a short hike. Oxygen was in short supply, and we were panting by the time we stopped only few hundred yards down the trail to watch an American Pipit with a beak full of insects. A few yards further we stopped again to look for Rosy-finches. We heard a call, then picked out a vocal male defending his territory from the top of a large boulder. I was surprised at how different he looked in summer, blending in with his brown-and-pink habitat instead of standing out against the white snow.
Back at the cars, we were told to expect one more stop—for ptarmigan!—before reaching the summit. When we finally pulled over, I piled out the door with my camera in hand, expectations higher than the elevation. We fanned out along the roadside, scanning at the rocks below. Patches of low-growing willows provide optimum habitat for female ptarmigan with young, while the males keep watch for above. We saw pikas, a yellow-bellied marmot, and then… “I see one!” “Where?””There! By the rocks!”
We all got a good laugh at that—the entire mountainside was one huge pile of rocks! One by one, everyone got their binos trained on the bird. As usually, it took me forever. And then, one of the rocks I was looking at suddenly morphed into the head, neck, and back of a Ptarmigan. Lifer!
A flash of red over the eyes revealed our bird was a male. Over a hundred photos later, I was confident I’d gotten the best possible shot, given the bird’s incredible camouflage. It showed no indication that it was disturbed by the dozen birders taking pictures.
After that, the rest of the trip was a bonus round. We enjoyed the fearless mountain goats hanging around the bathrooms and parking lot at the summit. A half-dozen stops on our way back to lower elevations (a mere 7,526 ft. at Idaho Springs and I-70), added a couple dozen more birds to the trip list. Some highlights included a Red Crossbill, a Brown Creeper, Wilson’s Warblers, and three species of hummingbird at one feeder (Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Calliope). Still, the highlight was finally sighting a bird that has eluded me on years of high country trips. I wonder what my next nemesis bird will be.
Photos, from top: Red Crossbill, Brown Creeper, Brown-capped Rosy-finch, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Mountain Goat kid.