While I love birding someplace new, there’s also something special about having a tradition of revisiting the same spot at the same time, year after year. My friend Debbie’s birthday is December 29, and we do our best to reserve the date for our traditional trip to Eleven Mile Canyon.
Eleven Mile Canyon starts at an altitude of 8,566 feet, at the dam that creates Eleven Mile Reservoir, in Teller County, Colorado, and descends to “only” 7,992 feet where it opens out at the small town of Lake George, in South Park. The reservoir feeds a year-round mountain stream, and the rushing water rarely freezes over even in mid-winter. This creates the perfect habitat for American Dippers, and we’ve seen them on every visit.
With repetition comes familiarity. Remembering the year when the wind chill was -30° F., I piled on the layers—and sure enough, the thermometer in the car registered all of 1° F. Thankfully, the frequent wind held off for most of the morning, but I was still cold. (I think Debbie is part polar bear!) It’s a good thing that the canyon is worth some shivering.
Entering the canyon from Lake George, we turned off the highway onto the dirt road, stopping to pay the entrance fee. Skipping the nature walk around the lake, which was blocked by a foot of snow, we headed upstream.
I’m always amazed at how wildlife is adapted to such frigid temperatures. We first spotted an assortment of Mallards, Common Goldeneyes (above), and Canada Geese paddling against the rapid current, followed by an open stretch of water that was occupied by a muskrat, only its nose poking out into the cold air. We stopped to photograph a couple of Bald Eagles sitting on snags, then some ravens perched on a ladder of dead branches.
Deciding to start at the head of the canyon and work our way back, we pressed onward, passing through two single-lane tunnels and past a number of picnic areas and campgrounds, now mostly closed for the winter. Arriving at the dam, we parked and joined a number of people fly fishing on the bank.
Immediately, we spotted a pair of dippers, then a third encroaching on their territory. This led to a bit of a squabble, and I had to duck to avoid an angry bird. We set up our tripods and cameras, and settled in to spend an enjoyable hour or two photographing wildlife.
Dippers are odd little birds. They brave the icy water of mountain streams to look for morsels. They don’t hesitate to completely submerge themselves, diving, swimming, then popping up to float on the surface. Sometimes they simply stick just their heads under the water, reminding me of that myth about ostriches; clearly they had the wrong bird in mind.
Their feathers keep them warm and dry, and besides, at this time of year the water is much warmer than the air.
Once we had played paparazzi to the dippers, we turned our attention to other birds that me might find. I saw astonished to make out what turned out to be a pair of Wilson’s Snipes on the opposite bank. Snipes are marsh birds, so what were they doing here?
Then I noticed a Song Sparrow hopping from rock to rock in mid-stream, apparently pretending to be a dipper. After thinking it over, I realized that at this time of year, the stream is the primary source of food, so it all made sense.
By late morning, I could no longer feel my fingers, nose, or toes, so we decided to call it a day. We’d taken Debbie’s car, and that turned out to be an excellent decision—she has heated seats in hers.
The answer to last Monday’s quiz is a Plain Chachalaca.