Over the mountains again

There's nothing like the hot, dry Colorado sun to melt the ice out of your bones after a long Newfoundland winter. I recently journeyed across the state starting in Conifer, CO and ending in my hometown of Hotchkiss, CO. It was wonderful to show someone around who had never seen the western slope of Colorado before because it opened my eyes to many details that I had missed altogether or had taken for granted. My home state is as beautiful as she ever was with only a few notable changes: a couple new bends in my favorite creek on the planet (Currecanti Creek), some rather scary changes with the mountain pine beetle in the lodgepole pine forests and, of course, some other plants are legal now that certainly weren't before. 20140623-DSCN2179

This is Buffalo Mountain near Silverthorne, CO in Summit County. The dead trees (brown in the foreground and grey-blue on the side of the mountain) are all "beetle kill". On the bright side though, there's still a lot of snow at this elevation and there are even snow drifts present about 4,000 feet lower. This year marks a spike in precipitation for Colorado which will help to prolong irrigation and hopefully battle the cycle that consists of trees killed by beetles, drought and ultimately, the pathogen that is fire.

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Here's a cloud-burst falling on the mountains beyond Lake Dillon between Dillon and Keystone, CO.

Now for the main event:

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Before I bring this guy into focus, I want you to take a good hard look at those colors. This is a favorite high elevation bird of mine, the Steller's Jay. This jay takes the grey from the Grey Jay and the blue from the Blue Jay and packages it all neatly into one little bird. Dunk the head into some black paint and there you have it. These birds are omnivorous (berries and bugs) so when you see a tiny flock of them like I did, you know that they have found a plentiful food source. Otherwise, they mostly hang out in pairs. The Steller's Jays in the following pictures were all observed at Sapphire Point on Swan Mountain above Lake Dillon.

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This is Swan Mountain:

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See if you can spot a Least Chipmunk or Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel in the next picture.

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I'll give you a hint on the squirrel:

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They're very friendly in this part of the world.

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Here's the Least Chipmunk having a snack:

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This is just one tiny finger of Lake Dillon:

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Perfect habitat for Canada Geese and gulls to hang out.

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Moving over to Garfield County, check out this Purple Finch seen from the balcony of my hotel room at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs.

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Glenwood Springs, CO sits below Red Mountain (below) and is very near one of Colorado's most iconic peaks, Mount Sopris.

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Near Glenwood Springs is an incredible hike up to Hanging Lake. It takes about 1-1.5 hours (if you're moving quickly) to get to the top of the trail where the lake is. In that hour, you gain 1,000 feet of elevation so the hike is straight uphill. Dippers and Black Swifts make the stream along the trail and the canyon walls their home. I wish I had pictures of those birds but I have failed you. All I have is this snap of a whistle pig (Yellow-bellied Marmot).

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Here's the lake and its life blood, the spouting rock waterfalls.

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With a much abbreviated in-between, I ended up on River Ridge Farm in Hotchkiss, CO where I grew up. This place is as classic to me as this House Sparrow is.

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And as I have mentioned before, a trip home is not complete for me without a Western Meadowlark.

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BONUS ROUND: Wild Turkeys seen on a drive through Barrow Mesa.

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Hart's Basin (Part Dos)

I thought I might start the second part of my Hart's Basin birdwatching trip blog off with some information. Fruitgrower's Reservoir is actually considered the best water-birding location in all the western slope of Colorado. When the reservoir gets low on water, it exposes mudflats. These mudflats are perfect nesting ground for shorebirds (Willets, American Bitterns, etc.) and waterfowl. The mudflats also attract animals besides birds. Muskrats, cottontails, jackrabbits, coyotes, foxes, minks and mule deer also access this unique valley watering hole. And the lizards, don't forget about them. 20130515-DSCN0193

This one was trying to hide from me, a Plateau Striped Whiptail. His striped back camo mimics dry grass which is found in abundance at Fruitgrower's Reservoir. And while previous photos may have led to the illusion that this unique place is right on the brink of the Rocky Mountains, it isn't. It's somewhat of an oasis really. For miles around Hart's Basin is an adobe desert full of anthills and sage brush. Beautiful in its own way but not necessarily an environment one would associate with lush green marsh land.

Recent estimates say that about 500 people per year visit this spot. I would recommend it to anyone, birder or not. And speaking of birds, let's get back to them.

I'll start with a classic little guy that I've found flitting around in a multitude of places. He's never picky and always has a sweet song to sing. He's the Song Sparrow, of course.

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When I was very first learning about birds, I recall that my ornithology professor told us that there existed a large category of songbirds which some people like to refer to as LBB's. Really, this category belongs to sparrows because they comprise nearly all the LBB's (Little Brown Birds). This is a joke. Because they get tricky to ID when the only difference is a slight hue of brown. But my next new bird sighting contestant made it easy on me. This sparrow has an interesting facial pattern that doesn't leave the mind's eye. A Lark Sparrow.

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Marinate this phrase in your mouth for a second: tyrant flycatcher. It's another group of songbirds that all boast the talent of being incredible acrobats in the air. And all just to follow the (seemingly) unpredictable flight patterns of their favorite cuisine, insects. This beauty is often found sharing power lines with Kestrels and Mourning Doves in CO, the Western Kingbird.

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And I'd like to close on the little guy I would refer to as pocket-sized if I was generous enough to give him lots of wiggle room in that pocket. The Black-chinned Hummingbird. I miss these birds greatly during the Newfoundland summer because, alas, they have not made this island their home. I think, secretly, hummingbirds believe that they're peacocks. They always sit just as stoic and proud as possible and even though they're micro, they're every bit as colorful.

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Keep an eye out for more bird photographs from my visit home to Colorado!

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