Friday, February 16, 2018

Colorado 2017 - Exploring and Snow Tubing : Day 4 - Dec. 28th, 2017

     On our fourth day in Colorado, we decided to take a little break from the non-stop hiking and take a drive up to Beaver Meadows Resort Ranch in Red Feather Lakes,CO for some snow tubing fun! It took us around 2.5 hours to get there from Estes Park. The drive was uneventful, but the last few miles were a little challenging due to ice and snow covering winding, hilly, unpaved roads. The check-in process was easy, but we were glad to have gotten there early in the day because this place gets very busy. We paid for a 2 hour pass, listened to a safety and orientation speech, walked up to the bottom of the hill, and grabbed a tube. The tubing hill is well-managed with up to 12 possible runs ranging from simple, straight "beginner" runs, to crazy winding runs with high jumps. They even had a side-by-side run if you wanted to race a companion! The tubes were all doubles, but you had the choice to ride it alone or with a partner.  We started on the "beginner" side, but after about 30 minutes we started checking out the more adventurous side of the hill. The one run that became our favorite started with a vertical drop, followed by an 'S' curve and a pass through a tunnel with a small jump at the end for braking purposes. We were doing pretty well with avoiding crashes, but the one crash we did have was pretty epic. Our tube somehow got caught up on the outer side of a curve which threw my partner face first into a pile of snow, and I got launched into the air, flying over his body (I was lighter, so I rode in the back). I held onto the tube, tucked all my limbs in, and rolled with the impact upon landing, so nobody got hurt, but definitely not something we will ever forget! This adventure was 100% worth the drive from Estes Park!

We made it! Let the snow tubing commence!

Snow tubing hill - beginner area to the left of the lift and advanced runs to the right. 
      After our two hours of fun had run out, we headed back out to the main road. Since we were about 15 min away from the Wyoming state line at this point, we decided to head north a bit to say that we had been to Wyoming. We also managed to log one bird sighting for Wyoming - a Common Raven - that was seen just over the state line! On the way back into Colorado I happened to see some movement on a roadside hill and immediately pulled over. The movement turned out to be our first ever Antelope!

The mountains look a little different up here in far northern central Colorado

Looking into Wyoming from Colorado

Proof we made it to Wyoming

...and back to Colorado

ANTELOPE!!!! (Photo taken with a smartphone through binoculars)
     By the time we got back to Estes Park it was dark, so we grabbed some dinner and then drove back into Rocky Mountain National Park in hopes of seeing some dark skies and lots of stars. Unfortunately the high winds and clouds, along with a very intense moon had other plans.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Colorado 2017 - Rocky Mountain National Park : Day 3 - Dec. 27th, 2017

          Our first stop on day 3 was to check out Estes Lake in the bright sunshine, rather than the snowy, gray afternoon that had greeted us on day 1. Although there was still a strong wind blowing which kept the birds hunkered down, we still managed to have a great short walk. Off the main path there was a dirt trail that led down to a stand of conifers jutting out into the lake. Conifers tend to create a fantastic windbreak, so most of the birds were hanging out in this small area. We were first greeted by a few Black-billed Magpies, followed by many American Crows, and a few Common Ravens and Mountain Chickadees! I noticed that while we were in this area, one of the ravens was watching us intently, and not flying away like the other birds were doing when we got too close. We even walked right under the bird while he/she sat about 6 feet above our heads, with no reaction. After we left the area, my partner realized that he had lost his sunglasses during a battle with his scarf in the wind, but he knew his glasses had to be somewhere on that small spit of land. With nobody else out on the trail, we were sure we could find the sunglasses if we went back and combed the area. After about 15 minutes of searching, no glasses were to be found. However, the raven that had been watching us earlier was gone. Our theory was that the raven had seen the glasses fall, and really needed a new decoration in his/her cache, so the bird had been hanging around us waiting for the right moment to swoop down and grab them.

The big white complex with the red roof in the background is the Stanley Hotel which was the inspiration for Stephen King's "The Shining"
Looking back at downtown Estes Park
Common Mergansers on Lake Estes

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

     While the day was still young, we hopped back in the car and drove out to Lumpy Ridge. This area is remarkably different from the main part of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in that it is literally "lumpy". Rather than the regular conical-esque mountain peaks, there are random slabs and spires of rock shooting out of the ridgeline. This creates a lot of little nooks and crannies that are very well sheltered from the wind and provide fantastic places for birds to spend the winter.

Lumpy we go!
     Our first discovery on this trail was the ingenious way in which the gate was kept closed...just a heavy rock bolted to a chain. Simple and effective. The next thing I noticed was a bull Elk watching us from his "bed" just up the hill a bit from the trail. I am sure that the people who were in front of us never saw him laying there. We kept a close eye on him as we walked down the trail to make sure that he wasn't being disturbed by our presence.

     We had just started up the first hill of the trail when I heard a sound that stopped me in my tracks. Pygmy Nuthatches!!!! I had pretty much given up all hope of seeing them on this trip, but there they were in all their tiny cuteness, along with a handful of Mountain Chickadees! We stayed with this flock for quite a while, and they eventually came close enough for some reasonably good photos! Definitely my favorite nuthatch!

Pygmy Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch
     Once the flock moved along, we climbed to the top of the little hill and I found a place to put down my backpack so I could safely store my camera until the next exciting avian discovery. I had just zipped up my backpack when I heard my partner say "hey do they have Mockingbirds here?" I immediately asked to see the bird he was looking at, and realized that it was a Townsend's Solitaire! This was another bird that I had given up hope on seeing this trip! I ripped the camera out of the bag so fast that I am pretty sure sparks flew, and took a few id-quality shots of the bird before it flew off. Little did we know that we would have over 10 more of these sneaky birds pop up on this trail, several of which were within 15 feet of us!

Townsend's Solitaire


The famous "Twin Owls" rock formation

The rock climber in me was itching to climb something!

The view from the highest point of our hike. 

Looking back at the trail

A perfect postcard
That was a BIG ROCK!

          Nothing much happened along the rest of the trail, except for the Townsend's Solitaires popping out everywhere, but the scenery was amazing!!! We also happened across the most adorable Chickaree (Red Squirrel) who was dismantling a pine cone right over the trail!

Pulling the pine cone apart with teeth and paws. 

My favorite photo of the whole trip!


Such amazing scenery!
     By the time we finished our hike at Lumpy Ridge, it was getting late in the day, but now that the roads were in a much better condition, we wanted to try visiting the Cub Lake trail again. When we first arrived there were several American Robins around, and a Black-billed Magpie, but not much else. We took a short hike down the trail through two different habitats, and braved some stinging "snownados" whipped up from the open fields, but didn't see much else. The light was starting to fade at this point, so we headed back to the parking lot. We were within view of the car when the most amazing thing happened...a flock of a dozen Common Redpolls dropped out of the sky and started feeding on the seeds leftover on the dead vegetation next to the trail! It was magical!

Here we go!

Snownado birthplace

A bush full of Common Redpolls


Common Redpoll

     On the way out of the park I just happened to look back and saw that the sun had lit the clouds on fire. What a great end to a fantastic day! 


Friday, January 26, 2018

Colorado 2017 - Rocky Mountain National Park : Day 2 - Dec. 26th, 2017

     On our first full day in Estes Park we awoke to a few inches of fresh snow on the ground, and temperatures in the teens (F). We dawdled at breakfast to allow time for the roads to be cleared a bit better before attempting to drive into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in our little hamster car.
     Our first stop was the Beaver Meadows Visitor's Center to get information on which roads were passable that morning without 4WD or even good tires. The ranger we talked to looked very worried for us, but I assured her I had driven in winter conditions quite a bit which seemed to calm her fears. She also gave us good information on where we should go for the best birding. Armed now with knowledge of what laid ahead and a park map, we entered the park and paid for our week-long day use pass at the entrance gate. Almost immediately, my partner spotted our first "new" mammal - Mule Deer! They were grazing alongside the road, and even crossed the road in front of us. I have worked with GPS tracking data from a Mule Deer study a few years ago, but never actually saw one until this moment!

View from the Beaver Meadows Visitor's Center

We made it!
Mule Deer!!!
Mule Deer along the road

     First we tried to visit the Cub Lake trail, but ended up turning around because of very steep, icy, and snow covered roads that I did not want to chance without a good vehicle. However, once we got turned around, we were eager to get out and do some sight-seeing on foot, so we pulled over at the first place we could park and took a short hike at Upper Beaver Meadows. This is when we realized that we would have to take things a LOT slower than normal. Neither one of us had adapted to the major increase in elevation, and at about 8,000 ft, even a normal walking pace on flat ground can knock the wind right out of you, especially if you are used to living at 650 ft. 

Some scenery along the way
I could not take enough photos of the scenery!
         After we caught our breath, we continued deeper into the park to a place called the Alluvial Fan which the ranger had said was often good for winter birding. As soon as we arrived at the parking area, we were greeted by a few Black-billed Magpies who were not in the least bit afraid of humans. It is illegal to feed wildlife in the park, but it seems that these guys were accustomed to getting handouts.

Black-billed Magpie in the snow

      In case you aren't familiar with physical geography terms, an alluvial fan is a fan-shaped "dump zone" of a stream or river where the velocity of the water decreases and allows rocks, sand, uprooted trees, and whatever else was picked up along the way to be deposited in their new location. Alluvial fans can also be created by floods, such as the Lawn Lake Flood that happened on July 15, 1982  when Lawn Lake's earthen dam broke. This flood killed one camper and flooded Estes Park with 6 feet of water within 3 hours of the dam break.

Part of the alluvial fan.
     After checking out the alluvial fan area (and me taking the first slip and fall of the trip), we walked down into the Endovalley. Breathing was still very difficult, and on about 3 inches of powdery snow, walking was not the easiest. About halfway down into the valley, I saw a woodpecker fly across the road, and got only a split second glimpse of it before it slipped behind a tree and did a disappearing act. This was most unfortunate because I am about 70% sure it was an American Three-toed Woodpecker which would have been a lifer for both of us. The rest of the walk was mostly birdless with a few peeps now and then from Black-capped Chickadees.

Our walk down into the Endovalley

     By the time we reached the end of the road, I was really struggling with how many pairs of pants I had on, and really needed to remove a pair before I made the uphill hike out of the valley. There was a sign for the Endovalley picnic area, so we trudged on, hoping to find a somewhat dry picnic table where I could sit and rectify my pants situation. We finally found such a place, and I set about taking 2 out of 3 pairs of pants off so I could remove the middle pair. Overhead somewhere a Red Squirrel was announcing our presence with its "raffle wheel" ticking chatter. I thought my partner was looking for the red squirrel when he quietly said "Oh, right there". I look up to see where he is looking, and after some confusion as to what he meant by "right there", I come face-to-face with a....... Stellar's Jay!!!!! I thought my partner had found the squirrel, but here, sitting at eye-level, about 5-6 feet from our faces was our most wanted bird of the trip! The takeaway from this story is that if you want a really good bird to show up within smartphone photo-taking distance, take your pants off.

Stellar's Jay - photo taken with a smartphone!!!

Just can't get enough of this magical bird!
     Still stunned by the chain of events that led up to the Stellar's Jay sighting, we slowly made our way back to the parking lot. The walk back seemed to be a bit birdier, and we heard some woodpeckers hammering, but just couldn't get eyes on those darned birds! At the parking lot there was a lot of chickadee activity, so I started to carefully look through the tops of the trees and found our lifer Mountain Chickadees!
    Finally back at the hamster car, we loaded up and headed toward the Fall River Visitor Center to poke around in the gift shop a bit and get warmed up. As we were about to leave the visitor center, we spotted our first Elk, which was an individual male with a huge rack of antlers bedding down right beside the main road! We watched many vehicles zoom right by him, not even noticing his presence. Can you see him in the photo below? 

Do you see the Elk?
     Upon obtaining a birding location tip from a lady at the gift shop, we decided to take a quick drive to Devil's Gulch to scout an area for the next morning's adventures. This little exploration turned into an absolutely beautiful drive on dry roads, and the spotting of a Rough-legged Hawk! More on this area in my next post.

The Lumpy Ridge area of RMNP
Rough-legged Hawk

This scenery speaks for itself

RMNP from Devil's Gulch Rd.
     After we stuffed ourselves with our first hot meal of the day at Wapiti Colorado Pub, we took a long walk around the mostly deserted downtown area of Estes Park. I am not sure I want to know how crowded this place gets in the warmer months. During our window shopping, I ran across a sign that perfectly described how I felt trying to hike out of the Endovalley while still not being able to breath due to the elevation.

Downtown Estes Park in winter

Trying to hike uphill in snow, while still not adapted to the high elevation. 

Stay tuned for Day 3 of our adventure!