It was cold. Really cold. The car thermometer read -3 (yes, that’s a minus sign) and the wind was howling. That’s what you get when you’re birding at 8,500 feet in the Rocky Mountains at the end of December. Despite four layers of winter clothing, knit hat plus fleece-lined hood, and gloves, I was shivering—and having a tremendous time!
Eight of us set off last Saturday morning for Eleven Mile Canyon, on the west side of Pikes Peak. It was all of 4 degrees as I pulled out of my driveway north of Colorado Springs, but it was early, the sun was out, and I figured it would warm up. So much for being optimistic.
We caravanned west up Ute Pass from Colorado Springs, through Woodland Park, then finally turned south off Highway 24 onto the dirt road that runs up Eleven Mile Canyon. The canyon is managed by the US Forest Service (with a $5 entrance fee per vehicle). We were on a dead end road that runs along the south fork of the Platte River (a mere stream at this point) to the base of the dam that created Eleven Mile Reservoir, a popular fishing spot.
The north end of the canyon is fairly open, where the South Platte fills the overgrown pond known as Lake George. We were hoping for Bald Eagles, but everything was frozen solid—they’d have a hard time fishing in those waters! As we entered the canyon, the walls grew higher and the grade grew steeper. Water rushed between ice-covered banks, and we began to scan for birds in earnest.
“Duck!” Spotting a Common Goldeneye in the water, we all stopped and pulled out our photo gear. With the duck in our sights and a scenic, snow-covered wonderland , eight happy photographers stopped caring about the subfreezing temperatures.
The next stop yielded the first of perhaps a dozen American Dippers. They were strung out along the river—we saw at least one at every pullout. Again, we went into action, trying to get shots of the charcoal gray bird that was swimming in charcoal gray water. Everyone got quite excited when it finally hopped onto a piece of bright white ice—now we could see what we were photographing!
A bit further on, we were focused on one dipper when a second one appeared. It was an instant confrontation! The first dipper put up a huge fuss, chirping and flapping its wings. Then it attacked the intruder! I hadn’t realized that dippers were territorial, but in this case at least, it was abundantly clear that dipper number one owned that piece of river. The whole altercation was over in seconds, and I was left snapping this shot of a very angry bird.
While we were all birders, this trip had been advertised as a photo fieldtrip, so we concentrated on getting shots of the birds we saw, rather than searching for variety. Even still, we ended with a decent list—20 species, although nothing too exotic. Still, I was thrilled to see so many dippers—I probably tripled my lifetime sightings!
We were still hoping for a Bald Eagle, preferably sitting in a nearby tree, posing. Repeated stops to search the canyon with binos proved disappointing, but we were persistent. Finally, we reached the dam at the end of the road, and stopped to turn around. At that moment we saw it! An eagle zoomed overhead, then took off down the canyon! Several people got spectacular shots of the bird in flight; I missed it entirely.
Like most birders, our group wasn’t just interested in birds. When a squirrel was spotted in a stream-side spruce, we all jumped out to grab pictures. It was an American Red Squirrel, also known as a Chickaree (not to be confused with the Douglass Squirrel, aka Chickaree, of the Pacific states), named for the energetic, chirpy chattering sound it makes when scolding anyone who gets too close. The first time I heard one, I looked all over for the bird that must be making that racket! Now I know better.
By early afternoon, the cold was taking a toll on our enthusiasm. Plus, most birds are smart enough to take shelter when the wind is blowing that hard. We decided to do likewise, and headed home.
Yes, it was cold. But it was also productive day, and lots of fun—a great way to end the year. I would recommend Eleven Mile Canyon, at least in winter, as a sure bet for seeing American Dippers. In fact, I’d recommend it as a scenic drive for anyone, birder or not. I certainly plan to return soon. First, however, I really need to warm up!