Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Grays Peak

When the alarm clock beeps at 2:30 a.m. it is natural to question one's motives, even for those who are used to beating the sun by several hours to engage in bird or photography hikes. Bed seems awfully nice when the reason for that alarm is an upcoming 8 mile hike with 3,000+ feet of vertical gain, and a summit of 14,270 feet lay ahead. But, after coffee, picking up friends and gear, just over an hour of driving, and a 5:00 start; everything begins to make sense:

Sun kissed Grays (left) and Torreys (right) peaks

I had gotten a bit of a head start on my group, knowing that with my cameras I would be a bit slower once I started taking pictures. As a result I had these couple of views all to myself, a rare treat because later in the day there are literally hundreds of hikers lining these trails like ants.

Looking back past the shoulder of Torreys - beautiful country

Soon the views began to be paid for in vertical feet. The first half of the hike, up to my location for the first two shots was a relatively gentle climb up a glacial valley. From here though it was switchbacks right on up to the summit.

A view back towards the trailhead, including Kelso Mountain (center) and Stevens Gulch (bending behind it from the right) trailhead sits just back out of view behind Kelso Mountain

I climbed Grays back in 2002 or 2003, and it was painful. My boots didn't fit well, I was wearing jeans with no belt, and as a twenty something I raced up, suffered down, and when it was over and the blisters and soreness had passed I realized I really hadn't savored much while I had worked hard to get up there.
This year was different. Once I got up high I took my time, I tried to memorize the views, and capture the moments, not to mention I had targets on my hike. The first were Rocky Mountain Goats. I have seen this species while driving up Mt. Evans years ago, but not since I had begun keeping lists or taking pictures. It was a species that I wanted to get on a hike, walking into its environment, not just driving by. I got them, seeing a group first on the ridge shortly after dawn, when they were just brilliant spots of gold high on red rock. About halfway up the ascent of the switchbacks I got a closer look, and at that point I was glad I had brought 5 plus pounds of camera along.

Rocky Mountain Goat

There was an even more elusive target though, one that I had tried for an missed many times in the past, and had never seen - the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch

My fellow hikers were a bit surprised when I shouted "Brown-capped Rosy-Finch"! There isn't much air up there for shouting, but I found some. I cruised to the summit, knowing that I had already bagged my two target species on the way up. Then the celebratory picture at the top, I'm squinting on the left - 'note to self - wear sunglasses for future mountaintop pictures'.


With my camera gear I headed back down with a part of the group, while some headed on and bagged Torreys as well. In hindsight I wish I had done Torreys as well, I wanted to get back down to the willow clumps in the valley below to look for Ptarmigan. When I got to that section I found two White-crowned Sparrows, and nothing else. I guess hundreds of hikers can have that effect. Oh well, now I have a reason to go back.

2010 Count: 196
Lifetime: 241

Friday, August 27, 2010

RMNP Trail Ridge Road Mammals - August 6th

Yellow-bellied Marmot

There was a whole family living under the back side of the Alpine Visitor Center. I had worked my way around to scan the snowfields and a few of them would brave the rock ledge just below my feet.


There were a group of four bull Elk just off the side of old Fall River Road. I had been looking uphill at some Pine Siskins when this fellow appeared from behind the ridge grazing his way towards me.


Always memorable in the early light.

Yellow-bellied Marmot

This little guy and a few of his kin were working hard cleaning the pad where the dumpster sat.


Finally, I have been trying for a photo of a Moose for as long as I have been taking pictures of nature. I have seen Moose, and I have taken many pictures, but until I saw a group of three bulls just off the side of the road outside Grand Lake I hadn't been able to combine the two.


A good karma story. No more than 20 minutes before I had been driving along the Colorado River headwaters, and had pulled aside when I saw stopped traffic, - a sure sign of Moose. Here comes a guy with a fully extended tripod around the back of his vehicle, as a cow Moose went past the front. The guy then closed on her in the middle of the road, leaving the somewhat blind of his vehicle and I guess trying to get even closer than the few dozen feet of range he was already at. Fortunately he only chased the cow into the woods - never getting his own shot and ruining the moment for the rest of us - not to mention disturbing the Moose in her environment. Had she had a calf following her from where she had come he might have placed himself between them, and been in a real bad spot. I choked back some rage knowing that I at least respected the animal I had missed a shot of, and consoled myself with the hope that I would be rewarded in due course.
Talk about immediate gratification. Three bulls, who were doing there own thing, and not disturbed by my unobtrusive presence. I got to see their faces, (although obstructed), and he hopefully only got a blurry shot of a fleeing backside.


Again, if you have Moose in your area, or visit one that does, enjoy - but do not approach. They are massive, and while generally docile may decide to hold their ground rather than moving away as you approach.


Last shot, this Elk was at Windy Gap Reservoir. Windy Gap is a wonderful bird trap just outside Grandby, Colorado; featuring more waterfowl in one place than I had possibly seen in the previous month. Unfortunately, I was looking south at mid-day, and got a bunch of horrible shots from distance. Had it not been for this Elk I would have been disappointed, but it dashed out onto a mudflat, obviously under attack by many biting insects. As it went it couldn't resist scattering Pelicans and Cormorants that were perched along the edge, before plunging into the water itself. It swam to an island and had a good 'stick-your-tongue-out' shake before settling back in to graze. Good times.

RMNP Trail Ridge Road Birds - August 6th

juvenile Red-tail Hawk

Just a fast recap of a sample of the birds I saw a couple of weeks back when I drove over Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road on my way to western Colorado. After the colorful, crisp birds I saw on the last day of that trip, these photos fell to the bottom of the to do list. With travel and work craziness they had been put off for far to long now.

American Pipit

Dawn, (or close to it) at the Alpine Visitor Center is a great place to be. There are no other people, and the rising sun which seems to be shining from far below lights subjects in an unexpected way.

American Pipit

I scanned the snowfields for any sign of Rosy-Finches, but struck out once again. Maybe this weekend.... Notice the difference between the two American Pipits, from checking around a bit I understand that there can be both 'darker' and 'paler' adults, and their non-breeding plumage show varying amounts of streaking.

White-crowned Sparrow

Who needs wings? That little sparrow has some hops!

Lincoln's Sparrow

Next post... Mountain Mammals.

Lunch Walk

On Wednesday I was able to get away for a lunch walk, at one of my favorite trails along the Dutch Creek Section of open space in Louisville, CO. Signs that summer is closing fast were apparent, including the ripening wild plums above.

Having not gotten much bird production out of my visit to Louisiana last weekend I was hoping to just see some sign of anything interesting to get me back up to speed for fall migration. The Great Horned Owl I spotted low on a tree through some brush did that nicely. I guess stopping to observe the fake owls in the city earned me some good karma with the real owls as well!

That one was in a horrible position for pictures, shaded on the other side of a fence and creek, while I was out in a bright field shooting into the sun. Trying to move in either direction just put the owl behind more brush, so I gladly took what I could get.
As if to compensate, a Western Wood-Pewee posed on a well lit branch for a bit between rounds of aerobatic, insect chasing flight. I should say to the best of my knowledge a Western Wood-Pewee, it would not accommodate me with a 'Pee-er' call, but otherwise seemed to fit the bill, and clicked with the other more vocal individuals I have seen in the past.

A really great, if too brief outing in the early fall. Soon the leaves will get to changing and forecasts of 100 degrees, (our expected high today in Denver), will be a distant memory. Hopefully if you are reading this you are making plans to enjoy a fun filled weekend, I know I am!

Then again, owls may just prefer to nap.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Big Easy

While in New Orleans this past weekend I was lucky enough to happen upon the rare and elusive, 'Patty O'Briens Hurricane Pigeon'! Fortunately, Daniel Chung was ready to get a shot with his iPhone camera - thanks for sharing the shot Dan. This mighty hunter has adapted to an environment of loud music, raucous humans - and thrives on dropped pieces of complimentary popcorn.

Also spotted on the trip, but not photographed were the recently separated species, 'Lucky Dog Cart Pigeon', and 'Days Old Pizza by the Slice Pigeon'.

Perhaps the most unusual species of all was seen just outside the hotel in the lush bamboo grove - known best by its Latin name; owlus plasticus.

Other individuals of that species had tragically passed and were found lying face down on the pavement - for the sake of the readers those images were not captured. Another individual of that species showed a remarkable survival strategy, it had apparently gone domestic and was touring the area with a group of young ladies, who would photograph it to document their progress. I knew of a penguin that had adapted to that 'roaming garden gnome' survival strategy years ago. That bird caught the eye of exotic bird traders and was left to an unknown fate, I can only hope this one fares better.
In all seriousness I had a great time in New Orleans, and didn't do a bit of serious birding or photography. I now have a Louisiana state list of three species - Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, and Laughing Gull. Getting the chance to hang out with 14 plus friends who only get together once a year is a priority that at times has to take precedence. The New Orleans area deserves another trip where birds are the priority, and I hope to make that happen as well, sooner rather than later.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Point and Shoot - Images on Loveland Pass

Just a few shots I took with my point and shoot on the trip.

Loveland Pass is one of my favorite places on Earth. It has natural beauty, but also represents a gateway that I often pass through in the winter when heading up to ski country.

Not to mention, a road that is just plain fun to drive. It reaches its summit and the true 'pass', on the horizon in the picture above, just in from the left a bit. My truck is parked on one of the pull-offs in the lower right.
Below are two of the smaller lakes on the same (south) side of the pass. The larger lake that produced most of my close shots of the birds was upslope and to the left of this frame. There is actually a small parking area for the larger lake, so drivers in the know can actually park away from the roadside if they prefer.

Just for kicks, here is a shot taken out my open window of a thunderstorm at sunset while driving along US 40, towards Dinosaur, CO. My plan when starting the trip had been to camp north of Craig, Colorado at or around the Freeman campground in the Routt National Forest. Thunderstorms, like the one below sent me on towards Dinosaur. Be forewarned that if you do arrive in Dinosaur after dark the camping options are either poorly signed or non-existent. I drove on another hour and a half, and arrived in Fruita one night early. I decided to extend my camping at the local La Quinta Hotel to two nights - after starting the day at 3:00 am I felt I had earned it!

Mountain Gems

While walking the lakes near the summit of Loveland Pass on Sunday I had the great fortune to follow a trail through some willow habitat that was shared by a group of cooperative warblers. The immature female Wilson's Warbler above was just one of the many birds who watched me from the cover of the willows.

The young male displays more of the Wilson's tell-tale dark cap. This one shows the bit of olive around the edges, an indication that lead me to believe this wasn't an adult.
The warblers seemed to feel secure in their concentrated stronghold of branches, and would let me get quite close as I followed the trail along the lake before they moved on to their next perch. Gaps in the branches let us check out one another to our mutual satisfaction.

Wilson's Warblers weren't the only species enjoying the beautiful summer day in the tundra, MacGillivray's Warblers were also moving about in the vegetation.

I noticed that in this case they seemed to prefer perches on top of the willow thicket, making them easier to follow, but a bit more subject to harsh light. Even so, the segmented eye-ring is visible in the shot above.

Just to round out the previous post, here was one of the adult White-crowned Sparrows. As is usual above treeline, these birds were prolific. A great last stop on my trip, but not the last blog entry from that excursion by far. Stay tuned.....

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Little help?

Here is one little bird that I had hoped to share, with its identity already confirmed; but once again I am stuck. If anyone has insights please let me know. The possibility is strong that I have missed something, but I will lay out my thoughts and pitfalls with the following pictures.

First off, this bird was seen foraging among wildflowers alongside one of the lakes on the Summit County side of Loveland Pass. I would put the elevation somewhere around 11,750 ft., but don't have that confirmed beyond association with the summit of the pass which is 11,990 ft.

The bird was just outside of some willow clumps, and was in close proximity to a handful of White-crowned Sparrows. It was quiet, or at least not vocalising loudly enough to overpower the wind and Pikas. Initially, I thought this was a White-crowned as well, just a young bird with a bunch of adults. As I began to double check though, some issues with that species began to arise.

First off, the bird is heavily streaked on the throat and underparts, which should be a solid light gray on a White-crowned; even a juvenile bird. Also, it seems that the dark crown-stripe drops down into the lores, (that area above and in front of the eye), too completely for an interior White-crowned. That pattern looks right for a Pacific, but again - the striping shouldn't be present.

To get myself a list for cross-checking I searched eBird records for some of the Tundra habitat Colorado Hotspots, and pulled a list of all the August results. The candidates I looked at more closely were; Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Cassin's Finch, and Pine Siskin.
I believe I have eliminated each as a pure species for the following respective reasons. The Chipping Sparrow, coloring is wrong, and the presence of striping is not correct. For a young bird though, the head pattern was close. The Song Sparrow, didn't seem that likely, and on comparison this bird doesn't show the same pattern of breast streaking or a central breast spot. Its eye-line runs straight back, not curving down like that of a Song Sparrow. A Lincoln's Sparrow seems more likely for a hybridisation, with the buffy wash and more streaking, but this bird is lacking the neck pattern - specifically a strong malar stripe, central breast spot, and fine streak pattern for a pure Lincoln's. I looked closely at the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch mainly because I am still seeking one (unless one of my long range pictures from earlier in the trip turns up a hidden gem). Besides hope, there really wasn't much a Rosy could add to the process. The Cassin's Finch did have more concrete contributions, specifically the streaking on the neck and underparts, and a fairly plain face pattern below the eye. The strong eye-line and pattern on the back aren't right, however. Of course, when looking at streaky mountain birds the Pine Siskin has to come to mind. On this bird the bill shape, leg color, and lack of strong wing-bars make that species unlikely as well.

So, a 'pure' species of any kind still doesn't seem close, but again, I wouldn't be terribly shocked if I was missing something out there that fits. A hybrid of one or more of these species may be more likely, but I didn't find much documentation for some of the more likely pairs. Also, I had another bird that appeared to match this one, but at a greater distance, and with poorer light. It is possible that the same bird moved between two locations while I was shooting - or that the two birds were siblings, but that may make hybrid a less likely option.

I believe my best guess is some kind of Lincoln's Sparrow mix, but I haven't found clear indication about the malar stripe on a young bird of the species.
If anyone has an answer for me, please feel free to share. The tough birds are the ones where we learn the most, and I have been digging on this one quite a bit. Thanks for considering, and I will have more pictures from this spot shortly, it was a great stop.
Also, while searching online the past few evenings I have been unable to find a handy and reliable list of most species that can be found in the tundra area. The lists you find for Tundra habitat feature the handful of species that are common there, but unlikely in other habitats, such as White-tailed Ptarmagin, Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, and White-crowned Sparrow. Anyone know of a list where you could sanity check to confirm that the bird you thought was a Downy Woodpecker would be really unlikely up there. For instance I see Bluebirds with some regularity up at the Alpine Visitor Center in RMNP, but because they are much more common in lower parts of the list they show up in park lists, but are not associated with the Tundra habitat. If anyone has a list that they use, or just has built one up with more experience than I have and can point me to it I would appreciate it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Early Returns

Just like on an election night the early returns from my trip may not in any way reflect what the outcome will be when the results have been fully examined. Regardless, I can say with confidence that I added three new species to my life list. Above is the Chukar, a gamebird species gone wild. Below, a Juniper Titmouse, a species that I missed when it unexpectedly hung around the Morrison Hawkwatch this spring. Both species made their appearances on Sunday morning as I drove through Colorado National Monument. The Juniper Titmouse suffered a bit from overcast skies just after dawn - the low light made its picture a bit grainy. The Chukars were just off the road, and fortunately the nearly non-existent traffic allowed me to back to a parking area and return on foot to get a bunch of fun shots.

I also added a Common Poorwill on Friday evening, on a county road leading up to Black Mountain. Unfortunately, it exploded out of the brush as I was driving and I had no chance for a photograph. My best guess was confirmed when I checked the CFO birding by county information later and saw that exact species described along that same stretch of road. While it wasn't dark yet, thunderstorms rolling past made for what I considered an early dusk. One more species that I will have to keep watching for to add to the blog.
The trip was a great driving weekend, and one that I will plan to add more entries about in the days and weeks to follow. As I get a chance to look at my many pictures more closely I may even be able to add some additional species highlights, but I know that there will be a few more pictures posted at some point.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Optimistic Disappointment

Oxymoronic, I know.

First the disappointment, after an unexpected early start to the work day this morning I had an extended lunch, and took the opportunity to visit Eldorado Canyon State Park. Despite the crowds of people and low overall numbers of birds I was able to add three new species for 2010, a Rufous Hummingbird, three very colorful Lesser Goldfinches, and on the way out - a bunch of young Cedar Waxwings. The disappointment set in afterwards, when I realised that I had taken great pictures of all three, without a memory card in the camera. Arrrgh!

Fortunately, I can get past it all knowing that I will hopefully get some great photo opportunities in this weekend. I am off for a two night jaunt through the north western part of the State of Colorado. This should offer a bunch of opportunities to add species that I don't normally get to see on the eastern side of the mountains.

Now if I remember to load my memory cards I should be all set!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lark Bunting

Since this past weekend was one that was committed to being on-call for work, I didn't have much of a chance to have any grand birding excursions. Instead, I decided to do something I hadn't for far to long - I took a few hours Sunday morning to bird Tom Frost Reservoir. The Reservoir, (its a smallish pond), adjacent fields and open space create a large habitat area that is nice to have so close to home.
While I was out I was fortunate to get long looks at this male Lark Bunting. Even though I wasn't at an angle to get a good face shot it is still nice to get Colorado's State Bird a presence here in the blog.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that this guy was the first Lark Bunting I had recorded since starting my life list, and therefore a new life bird. I did a bit of data mining in eBird and saw that Broomfield County only had 4 previous records (it has only been a county since 1998), and that they all fall between the last week of July and the first week of September. It seems that the western individuals in this species will migrate along the Front Range of the Rockies, and stop to rest and reload at points along the way.

Without a pool of reference for comparison my best guess is that this male is just beginning it's fall molt. As it settles in for the winter anywhere from the extreme southern corner of Colorado to the middle of Mexico it will more closely resemble a Harris' Sparrow, with a dark face and overall brown streaky body, but retaining some white in its wing-bars.
Hopefully I don't have to wait another two years to see this bird again.
2010 Count: 187
Lifetime: 237