Rocky Mountain Nature-ing


Where do you go birding in the middle of the summer? With highs at home well into the 90s, Pete, our friend Debbie, and I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park for four days of cooler temperatures in a spectacular setting.

Least Chipmunk_RMNP-CO_LAH_8247Yes, we slept on the ground (but we had an air mattress), hiked to the bathrooms (but they flushed!), and retreated into our tents for the afternoon thunderstorm (but it didn’t leak). Camping isn’t always the most comfortable or convenient way to spend time in the great outdoors. But then, we shared our campsite with a pair of Green-tailed Towhees plus a number of adorable least chipmunks (left) and golden-mantled ground squirrels, ever alert for a dropped crumb. We had a terrific look at (the tail-end of) a Northern Goshawk. We drifted off to sleep every night to the calls of a Common Poorwill, and very early one morning we heard the haunting call of a Boreal Owl. Not too shabby, and certainly worth a few mosquito bites.

The park is incredibly crowded in the summer, so we were up at dawn to beat the crowds. Later in the day, the line of cars entering the park is miles long, parking lots fill, some roads are closed, and you have to take the (free) shuttle. Plus, all those people tend to scare away the birds.

Green-tailed Towhee_RMNP-CO_LAH_8180Our first morning was spent right around our campsite, a walk-in tents only site on the edge of Moraine Park next to a rock ridge that overlooked a small valley full of aspens. Boisterous robins, nesting House Wrens, and the ever-present towhees (left) were joined at times by crows, ravens, Brewer’s Blackbirds, and swallows. When I tired of photographing birds, I turned to the mooching rodents scurrying under the picnic table and posing on the rocks. Later, as I crawled into the tent for an afternoon nap, I dozed off to the echoes of Mourning Doves in the distance.

A trip to Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t complete without a drive up Trail Ridge Road, so that’s where we headed the next day. Open from Memorial Day until closed by snow (usually in October), this breathtaking (literally) drive takes you above the tree line and across the tundra, topping out at a dizzying 12,183 feet above sea level.

Elk_RMNP-CO_LAH_8655Our first stop was the Alpine Visitor Center. We were much too early for the building to be open (thankfully the bathrooms were unlocked), but we didn’t care, as our focus was on the herd of elk next to the parking lot. Aware of the park rules (and common sense) telling us not to approach these potentially dangerous animals, I relied on my telephoto lens—until suddenly all I could see was a viewfinder full of golden brown hide. I had to beat a hasty retreat, as the elk hadn’t read the rules, and had no fear of approaching me!

Bighorn Sheep_RMNP-CO_LAH_8701Backtracking to the Rock Cut pullout, we were thrilled to find a herd of bighorn sheep grazing the wildflowers below. Males with their massive horns, females with much daintier headgear, and a number of lambs all traversed the steep mountainside, sure-footed on the rocks and cliffs as they stopped to nibble the alpine grasses.

As the sheep wandered off, we turned our focus to the yellow-bellied marmots and pikas on the rocks immediately below the parking area. The marmots were stuffing themselves with greenery, eager to fatten up during the short growing season before hibernating all winter. Pikas don’t hibernate, but they too were busy gathering plants to store in their underground larders.

Crossing the street, we started up the Tundra Communities Trail. The salient word here is “up”—and climbing anything at 12,000 feet is a major undertaking. Since oxygen was in short supply, we made frequent stops to photograph the awe-inspiring views and abundant wildflowers. All our efforts were rewarded at the end of the walk. Debbie pointed out a pair of White-tailed Ptarmigan making their way across the tundra, blending in so perfectly with the shattered rocks that it took me forever to spot them.

Elk_RMNP-CO_LAH_9156We were about to turn back when a huge herd of elk appeared over the ridge in front of us. While the bulls and some cows guarded the young bedded down in the soft grasses, a smaller group of females sauntered right up to the rock we were perched on, then past us back along the trail to the car. We weren’t about to walk up to such large animals to ask them to move, so we were stuck in place until they finally decided to head off in another direction.

RMNP-CO_LAH_8174Our final stop was Rainbow Curve, a large pull-out overlooking Horseshoe Park and Bighorn Mountain. By this time, it was becoming crowded with tourists. Enough people were ignoring the “Do not feed the wildlife” sign that the Colorado chipmunks and golden-mantled ground squirrels (right) were enjoying a junk food feast (that will probably kill them). Clark’s Nutcrackers hung around looking for any Cheetos the rodents missed.

It was getting late and we were getting hungry—time to head back to our campsite for lunch and a well-deserved nap.

House Wren_RMNP-CO_LAH_9408Our final morning we hiked a mile or so up Fern Lake Trail (until the mosquitoes drove us back), then packed up camp and drove over to upper Beaver Meadows to look for birds, flowers, insects, and anything else of interest. Violet-green Swallows and House Wrens were busy going in and out of their nest holes, previously drilled by  woodpeckers into the trunks of aspens, while fields of wildflowers attracted a plethora of butterflies. It was the perfect spot for a picnic before we had to head back down the mountain for home.


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