Birding the Rocky Mountain National Park

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.


running nutcracker.jpg

posing nutcracker.jpg

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:

mountain bluebird
black-billed magpie
mountain chickadee
pine siskin
red-tailed hawk
violet-green swallow
barn swallow
rock pigeon
band-tailed pigeon (I think! – crappy look)
common raven
american crow
western wood-pewee
clark’s nutcracker
turkey vulture
dark-eyed junco
brown creeper
black-billed magpie
american robin
house wren
cedar waxwing

This entry was posted in birding, birds/nature, life, Links. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Birding the Rocky Mountain National Park

  1. lattelady says:

    Next time you are up at RMNP, you might want to stop at Estes Perk coffee shop, just outside the north entrance, and accross the way from the Fall River Visitor Center. They regularly have 30 hummingbirds, thrush, nutcrackers and maybe even a rufous.


  2. Is Estes Perk where you get your lattes?

    Thanks for the tip – I’m sure I’ll be in the area again sometime soon!


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