Last week the American Ornithologists’ Union held its 125th annual meeting at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. This gave me a great excuse to fly in to Denver and bird the Rockies on my way to Laramie. On Day One – Tuesday – I hit the Rocky Mountain National Park, about an hour northwest of Denver.
Of course, this was a spectacular place with some first-rate birding. My goal was to get a good look at my lifer Clark’s Nutcracker, as these birds have eluded me at several places in the past. I was also excited to drive above the treeline to try for White-tailed Ptarmigan.
On the way up, I stopped in Lyons and Estes Park to look around a bit. Both were lovely, but I liked Lyons a little better – less influenced by the vast number of tourists visiting the Park.
I paid my 20 bucks to enter the park for the week, even though I only had a few hours. Sadly, I saw signs on entering the Park that prohibited ANY kind of wildlife feeding, so I wondered how and when I’d get a chance to share the peanuts I had purchased with the jays and nutcrackers I was anticipating. . .
The birding was a little slow, no doubt a function of it being a late morning in August when I got there. I was immediately entertained by some Mountain Bluebirds and a foraging family of Black-billed Magpies.
Then a Red-tailed Hawk that was high in the air directly overhead folded its wings and went into a long dive that ultimately took it to a spot a good quarter mile away into a meadow across the road. It got something – probably some kind of ground squirrel.
Farther up the road I stopped at the main visitor’s center and encountered LOTS of Pine Siskins, a few Rock Pigeons, Violet-green Swallows, and a lone House Wren. Up a little higher, I found Mountain Chickadee, Common Raven, and American Crow.
Finally up at Horseshoe Park, I pulled into a busy parking lot near a rest room just as it started to rain steadily. I assumed that the rain was a function of elevation, i.e., that now that I was above 10,000′ I was simply in a cloud. It was also only about 55 degrees now, a sharp contrast to the 80s in the foothills below. But I saw it – a flash of black, white, and gray streaking down along the mountain over the rocks – Clark’s Nutcracker!
Then I saw another, and another. They were all around at this parking area, taking peanuts from children’s hands. I guess I’d have my close encounter with them without having to break the law myself!
As I had hoped, the nutcrackers were delightful, social, intelligent, and endearing creatures. I stayed with them far too long and got soaked to the skin. It was totally worth it, however.
From there, I climbed still higher (about 1000 ‘ more) and got above the timberline. I was soaked and chilled and I had a headache at this point. I couldn’t tell if my malaise was lack of sleep (I’d been up since 4), lack of oxygen, or a function of the three-day sore throat I had going into the trip. Whatever the source, I knew I didn’t feel up to hiking out into the alpine tundra in a driving rain, so I just stayed in the car and scanned for ptarmigan as best I could. No dice.
I then began the long trek down the mountain and up to Fort Collins where I intended to spend the evening. I had wanted to stop a few more times on the way, but the rain didn’t let up until I reached my destination. At that point, I just wanted to crash on a warm pillow anyway.
Here’s a basic list – not complete, but representative:
band-tailed pigeon (I think! – crappy look)