With gorgeous scenery, fascinating geology, and a zoo’s worth of wildlife, a visit to Yellowstone National Park is always a delight. And in spite of the weather (cold, snow, and sleet on the first day of summer?!), last week’s trip was no exception.
“You can’t always get what you want…”
“I heard that there two Spotted Owls are being seen in New Mexico. I’m going to go look for them—do you want to come? How soon can you leave?” My friend Susan (left) had done a Big Year last year, but she was still missing this species and was keen on adding it to her North America life list.
I reread her text. What she was really asking me was, do I want to drop everything, pack an overnight bag, drive six hours, then hike down a steep trail in the hopes that we will be able to locate an owl that looks just like the tree it is sitting in?
(This post continues my series on birding in Australia… choose “Birding Trips” in the Category box at right to see my previous posts.)
I woke the next morning as soon as it was light and headed out the door, surprising several grazing kangaroos. I snapped their picture as they bounded away. Several Noisy Miners lived up to their name, making a racket in the early morning stillness. A pair of raptors landed on the top of a tall tree nearby. Pulling out my binos for a good look, I realized they were Ospreys—familiar birds. It seemed strange to see them so far from home.
As I stare out the window at brown and dead, I’m dreaming of warm, green, lush gardens. In past years I’ve had to make do with visits to Denver Botanic Gardens’ greenhouses (left) or the Butterfly Pavilion in Broomfield, Colorado (another walk-in greenhouse full of tropical plants). This year, however, we’re heading south to where plants are green and you can walk around outside without lays of insulation. I can hardly wait.
As we aren’t leaving quite yet, I have some time to ponder which direction to go. We’re driving, we have no reservation, and we can be as random and carefree as we like—at least until the money runs out.
I just came back from an exciting day of birding and photography. Our local Audubon chapter organized a field trip to Mt. Evans, which reaches 14,265 feet above sea level. Our target birds included White-tailed Ptarmigan and Brown-capped Rosy-finches. We were also looking forward to some alpine relief from the hot summer weather.
The morning was clear and sunny as we climbed into the Rockies along I-70. Taking the turnoff at Idaho Springs, we headed back south toward the mountain. First stop: Echo Lake, just before the toll road entrance.
A variety of chirping birds greeted us as we piled out of our cars for a quick look-see. Goldeneyes floated on the lake, we got a quick glimpse of a Lincoln’s Sparrow (right) in the willows, and a male Pine Grosbeak (above) posed for us in a tall spruce. It was going to be a great day! Wasn’t it?
Our next stop was misnamed Summit Lake, nestled against the cliffs at “only” 12,830 feet. Although it was a week day, the place was busy, with hikers, photographers, and even some nuns in their habits. Kids were running around on the tundra, right past the signs telling us to stay on the trails, while their parents shrugged and looked the other way.
A few patches of snow still remained on the north side of the mountain, perfect habitat for Rosy-finches. And, sure enough, there it was—a single Brown-capped Rosy-finch singing far across the lake. We tried to get closer, but it remained a tiny speck in my binoculars. Please close your eyes and imagine the lovely photo I wasn’t able to take.
Back in our cars, we climbed higher. The switchbacks meant we alternated between hugging the inside lane against the cliff and teetering on the outside lane next to the sheer drop-off. The asphalt was crumbling from the extreme climate at this altitude. I tried to focus on looking for birds.
Reaching a pull-off that could accommodate all three cars, we stopped by the side of the road to look for ptarmigan. Pikas chirped at us from atop the orange granite boulders, then disappeared underneath when I approached to photograph them. Yellow-bellied Marmots lazily warmed themselves in the morning sun (left). A few Common Ravens soared overhead, and American Pipits hopped over the rocks far below. Please imagine the White-tailed Ptarmigan we didn’t see.
After searching for perhaps 20 minutes, we noticed the sun disappearing behind some menacing clouds. Lightning flashed across the valley, thunder rumbled. Yikes. If we wanted to reach the summit, we had better hurry!
Once again we scurried back to the cars, and this time headed straight up the steep road. A herd of Bighorn Sheep stared as we motored past, but we couldn’t stop for photos. Mountain Goats munched the alpine flowers, their kids frisking from rock to rock, but we had to reach the summit—because it was there.
Finally, we crested the final rise and found ourselves in a crowded parking lot. The sky grew black. Lightning flashed, followed immediately by deafening thunder. Big drops started to fall, then more, and more. The heavens opened and we were deluged by a waterfall of pounding rain, quickly followed by graupel, then sleet. Well, we wanted to escape the heat….
Eventually, the storm began to abate as the clouds moved east. We cautiously opened the car doors and climbed out. The sheep and goats were long gone; they were smart enough to avoid a 14,000 foot mountaintop in a thunderstorm! Wind whipped through our summer jackets and numbed our noses. We didn’t stay long. Please imagine the lovely wildlife photos I didn’t get.
Back down we went, and again I tried to ignore the crumbling pavement along the precipitous cliffs. We stopped once more to look for ptarmigan, but had no luck.
We had passed the gardens at Mt. Goliath (part of the Denver Botanic Gardens) on our way up, so we stopped on our way back. The wildflowers were gorgeous, but it started to rain again, so we didn’t stay long. It was also too wet to linger at the hummingbird feeders at the bottom of the toll road.
We did make a final stop at a bridge to look for American Dippers in the stream below. It took a while, but we finally spotted the bird wading in the rushing water. It was hard to see with all the riparian foliage in the way, and the eleven of us crowded along the guard rail, trying to get a peek. Please pretend that I got my turn in front in time to take a photo before the bird flew away.
Not all trips produce the birds and photos we hope to find. Still, it’s hard to beat a day in the Rockies, no matter what we don’t see.
The saga continues…
The alarm on my phone chirped into the pre-dawn blackness. My friend Debbie and I both groaned. Between the 18-wheelers on near-by Hwy. 50 and the louder truck parked across the narrow driveway from us—the truck whose owner decided to idle for ten minutes, then rev the engine for another ten, and then finally to drive around the crunchy gravel loop a few times at 2:40 am!—we hadn’t slept at all well.
Still, an exciting day was waiting. We had each signed up for different trips, and mine was headed up Grand Mesa to look for (among other species) Chukar, Gray Flycatcher, Gray Vireo, eight warbler species, and Black-throated and Fox Sparrows. Since several of these would be new birds for me, the anticipation was enough to get me up at 4:30, and into the car by 4:45.
I just got back from my first birding conference—the annual Colorado Field Ornithologists’ Convention. This year it was held in Grand Junction, on the western slope of the Rockies. My friend Debbie (above) and I enjoyed three days of beak-geek heaven, plus a full day each way for the 5 hour drive from home. Sometimes life can be pretty sweet.
As a newbie attendee, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. However, I had heard about the amazing field trip possibilities. After reading all the glowing descriptions on the conference website, I signed up for three outings, one a day. As far as the rest of the activities… well, I’d just have to wait and see.