Birding at 15,000 Feet: A Colorado Chronicle
Guest Post by young birder Evan Barnard
The adventure began at the Denver airport baggage claim area, where I first met camp director Jennie Duberstein and fellow campers for 2014 Camp Colorado. The American Birding Association runs the camp, which is sponsored by Leica Sport Optics. After loading up the van we immediately found the first bird of trip, a Western Kingbird, in the airport parking lot. Then it was off to the YMCA of the Rockies. We passed many Swainson’s Hawks on power lines and prairie dogs at their burrows, then stopped at Barr Lake State Park for some “Western” Willet action. As we climbed to higher altitudes, I had the incredible chance to see two elusive White-throated Swifts. Seeing a Green-tailed Towhee and Black-billed Magpie as we arrived at the YMCA, I immediately realized that for me literally every bird was a lifer. That first evening we all met up for introductions and to share and laugh at terrible bird puns.
The next day started off with some montane birding at Wild Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park. We walked along a gushing stream, spotting an American Dipper diving into the rapids, only to come right back up and dive again. Then the bird rested on a large boulder in plain sight, immediately becoming the subject of about 20 young birder paparazzi. That hike yielded a good number of birds, including Mountain and Black-capped chickadees and an impressive Red-naped Sapsucker, not to mention fantastic lichen and sociable ground squirrels.
We visited the YMCA campus banding station that afternoon. The station’s bander, Mr. Scott Rashid, taught us about banding a myriad of different species. In our short time at the station, Mr. Rashid caught and banded two House Wrens, two Cassin’s Finches, two Broad-tailed and one Rufous hummingbirds, a Black-headed Grosbeak, and three Pine Siskins. He also caught and recorded a previously-banded House Finch. I got to hold a House Wren gingerly in my hands and then release him. Mr. Rashid held up a Cassin’s Finch and a male House Finch next to each other for comparison, as they appear similar, but the distribution of red coloring is different. We also got to see the hummers up close and spotted a Cordilleran Flycatcher and a small flock of Band-tailed Pigeons. That evening instructor Bill Schmoker gave a fascinating presentation about the different types of habitat in Colorado, based on latitude, longitude, elevation, and the types of birds that live in each habitat.
Thursday was Alpine and Sub-alpine day. It was a gorgeous day, with beautiful scenery as we ascended Trail Ridge Road in the National Park. At one point, instructor Jen Brumfield offered a dollar to the first person to spot a Yellow-bellied Marmot. I spotted the first one, securing the dollar bill and bragging rights. Suddenly the vans pulled over to the side of the road. I quickly realized that a Brown-capped Rosy-finch was just meters away in front of us, giving us a brief view of one of our target birds for the week. We reached our trail that started along Medicine Bow Curve, at the highest elevation we would reach during the camp. Even though most of the plants and wildflowers were less than a few inches tall, the environment at that altitude has allowed the plants to survive there for decades. We soon found two White-tailed Ptarmigan. As we listened to Hermit Thrushes in the distance, we all took many pictures of the ptarmigans parading their summer plumage. Listening carefully, we could hear them clucking softly as they strutted around like over-insulated chickens.
After the photography and digiscoping opportunity, we went to the Alpine Visitor Center, where we had a brief but terrific look at a juvenile Red Crossbill. Our next stop was at an overlook above a downhill expanse of snow. As we ate lunch, we enjoyed great views of rosy-finches, Mountain Bluebirds, and siskins, and even overhead views of a Golden Eagle and Common Ravens. Adult and juvenile elk were resting on the rocky slope opposite where we stood. As we made our way back down to the sub-alpine altitudes, we made stops along the way to get looks at adorable little pika.
At those higher altitudes we observed a Horned Lark, American Pipit, and White-crowned Sparrow, but it was the incredible Clark’s Nutcrackers that soon became my new favorite species. Finally, we made it back to the YMCA, splitting up for field sketching and photography sessions. That night instructor David La Puma spoke to us about radar birding, where weather radar is used to predict where hotspots will occur at a future time.
On Friday we did more montane birding in Rocky Mountain National Park, this time heading to Upper Beaver Meadows. There were excellent opportunities to learn about the ecology of the montane region, such as learning about particular flowers and trees, and of course learning about birds. Notable birds of the day included the Dusky Flycatcher and Western Tanager. We were treated to an evening program by David La Puma about Project SNOWstorm and Snowy Owls. He showed us two dimensional maps of the paths the birds had taken, as well as very detailed time-accurate three-dimensional models of where particular birds were at corresponding points of time. He also brought some of the GPS units that researchers put on the backs of the owls, some of which were much larger than I expected.
The next day was the Camp Big Day. We all woke up very early to get to the Pawnee National Grasslands before sunrise. It was an amazing day for lifer birds AND animals in the Pawnee: incredible birds like Mountain Plover, Curve-billed Thrasher, Lark Bunting, Common Nighthawk, Burrowing Owl, and even courting McCown’s Longspurs. Add in pronghorn, an American badger, locusts, horned lizards, and swift fox, and that’s only the beginning of my list.
After the grasslands we went to Fossil Creek Reservoir and saw many Western Grebes and a single, elusive Clark’s Grebe during a downpour of rain. Back at Estes Park, we scored a MacGillivray’s Warbler perched next to the banding station. We ended the day comparing our lists for a total of 89 species of birds.
Sunday was our foothills birding day. We went birding around Lyons, Colorado, spying nesting Bushtits and two prairie rattlesnakes. We birded our way along an old strip of road leading to a dilapidated bridge, stopping for a celebratory picnic. I finally got more than a glimpse of a Lesser Goldfinch as I walked down the road. In the sunlight the yellow of its plumage truly had a golden glow. That night was the wrap-up and a time for goodbyes. We promised we would all see each other again one day.
My week in Colorado was definitely one of the best, if not the best, experiences of my life. I express my greatest gratitude to the instructors and other campers, with whom I bonded and will never forget. The American Birding Association has created an opportunity for young birders to experience birding at a whole new altitude.