Thursday, August 18, 2016

Rocky Mountain National Park: Medicine Bow Curve, Endovalley, The Rabbit and The Rock

Our second morning in Colorado, we awoke early...destiny does not come for the late riser. This would be a fateful day, one way or another. By the end of the day I might be a birding hero, or it could all come crashing down on me. If failure was in the cards, this would be a memorable dip indeed. Following in the footsteps of probably thousands of birders before me, we would aim for arriving at Medicine Bow Curve as early as possible for the best chance of bagging a White-tailed Ptarmigan, the undisputed target bird of the trip. White-tailed Ptarmigan was one of those birds I saw in a field guide as a kid that seemed especially fascinating...though it was a bird found in the Lower 48, who knew when I would actually get to look for one? Never? Over 20 years later, I finally had my chance.

We got out of our Airbnb at Horsetooth Reservoir acceptably early, passed some Swainson's Hawks at their night roost, avoided a predawn collision with a herd of bighorn sheep crossing the road and quickly got up to Medicine Bow Curve. The park was beautiful early in the morning, and practically devoid of human life. We were the first people to arrive at the curve, the weather was sunny and calm, so I thought our chances of crossing paths with this bird was very good.

As the morning dragged on, my opinion of our chances started to fade. Back and forth I trodded along the short trail, scanning the rocky ground for a rock that would move. This went on for some time. Finally, I knew it was time to admit defeat...Billy and I were almost back to the car when I made my ceremonial last scan (As the GBRS ranked #7 birder in the U.S., I highly recommend taking a thorough last scan for interesting birds whenever you are about to leave a site. I can't tell you how many times this has resulted in lifers and rarities, whereas I would have had nothing to show for it otherwise). Wayyyyy upslope above me, I noted a rock with a protrustion that resembled a head and neck of a ptarmigan. This was not exciting, and not even really interesting...I knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was just a rock that happened to resemble a ptarmigan. What it certainly was not was an actual ptarmigan.

Then, I thought I saw the head of the rock move. Could it be? Finally, the entire rock started strolling away, with 5 golfball-sized rocks following it.

Suddenly, the air was filled with imaginary fireworks. Ticker tape rained down on us, and squadrons of F-18s flew low overhead in a show of birding patriotism. The shimmering ghost of Roger Tory Peterson stood with the spirits of Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, proudly regarding the winning birders. We had done it!

The ptarmigan and her escort of tiny chicks seemed to have a particular destination in mind, which looked like it happened to be right next to the end of the trail, so we scurried back down the trail toward where I thought the birds were heading. Sure enough she reappeared above, with a vanguard of ridiculous ptarmiganlets leading the way.

While ptarmigans are reported with comforting regularity from this location, they are not by any means a sure thing. Among birds in the Lower 48, perhaps no other species has camouflage equal to that of the White-tailed Ptarmigan, made possible from the drastic molts they undergo each spring and fall, transforming from a peerless sheer white even Snowy Owls are envious of to an indescribably intricate pattern of gold, tan and black. This is a product of living in an environment of extremes, of course, the sort of place that for many years involved a major undertaking for humans to get to. There is a reason that so many cultures believe that The Creator dwells on the highest mountain top. And who does The Creator keep for company for much of the year, when all other creatures go to sleep or flee for warmer climes? The pika, and the ptarmigan.

Unlike the chicks, the hen was wearing  a lot of accessories...leg bands, a radio collar, and a big antenna that sprouted from her back. The ptarmigans here are part of a long-term study to detect changes in population density and monitor reproductive success; this species is vulnerable to climate change and may also be impacted by elk browse on alpine willows.

The fam fam (pfam pfam) strolled right by us, just as I had hoped. Though extremely hard to spot (as advertised), they also were very confiding (as advertised). I couldn't believe that it had all come together like this...was it all luck? Was Frank Mayer down in the valley below, emanating beams of his notoriously excellent luck?

A baby ptarmigan is not something I thought I would ever see. I get all choked up just thinking about it. Look at those stout little legs.

After our time in the company of the ptarmigan was over, it was back down Trail Ridge Road. The Mountain Bluebird nest at the visitor's center restroom was about to explode with fledglings.

The Brown-capped Rosy-Finches again abided at Lava Cliffs. A stop at Rainbow Curve for Pine Grosbeak (which a birder had just seen there earlier that morning) and Gray Jay was met with failure, but in the light of the come-from-behind win with the ptarmigan family, that didn't matter very much. Finally we decided to visit Endovalley, which is popular with birders and surely held some more yankee bravos. It really is a pleasant place to bird and hang out; we happened to park next to a calling Hammond's Flycatcher, which would be the only one of the trip. We walked along the gurgling stream, which Billy enjoyed like a normal person but which simply frustrated me because I kept seeing dipper shit on the rocks but with no accompanying dipper. Finally we came up on an area with no dipper shit, but an actual dipper.

Eastern birders absolutely fiend for dippers, and rightly so. There is nothing like a dipper in the east...waterthrushes are cool, but they are no dipper. Western birders are very grateful for their ouzels, we do not take them lightly. We hung out a long time with this confiding juvenile, who serenaded us with some whisper singing that served as the perfect accompaniment to the babbling brook.

The dipper seemed content to do absolutely nothing for quite a while, which I can really respect. Eventually it took interest in a nub on the log, which I also respect. It's all about the little things in life you know?

This ended up being the mellowest dipper I had ever met, probably even the best dipper I had ever seen. For those of you who have not met one of these stream spirits, don't worry...your dipper is out there, waiting for you. Just don't look for one in a dried up stream, or you will find your spirit equally dried up.

After loitering with the dipper, we walked back out along the road to bird the aspen groves. It did not take long before another yankee bravo reared its sappy head...several Red-naped Sapsuckers lurked within the aspens. Though I'd seen many in California over the years, I'd never actually seen one where they breed. Aspens are an ideal place for sapsuckery.

This male is showing the classic red throat washing over the black border of the throat, and of course the reddish nape. Sharp bird.

After we finished up at RMNP, we had a "day off" in the lowlands, hanging out around Fort Collins and visiting a few spots around town. The two Airbnbs we got for this trip had really worked out well, especially the one by Horsetooth Reservoir, where one could do some decent yard birding. In fact, one of the most bizarre experiences of the trip happened there while we were talking to the owners about birds...their cat wandered outside, and came back to us a few minutes later with a live baby cottontail in its mouth, which was squealing in agony. The cat, of course, simply dropped the rabbit (which was bleeding from its neck) and walked away. For the next several minutes, the rabbit would appear to finally be dead, then kick pathetically in the air, then repeat. It was quite awkward, because the owners certainly didn't know what to do about it. Finally Billy decided enough was enough, and volunteered me to put it out of its misery...great. So I held it against a large rock, got another rock, and beat its brain in until there was nothing left of its head anymore (don't worry, I dispatched it on the first blow, I'm good at stuff). It was extremely messy. So in case you needed to be told for the millionth time...keep your shitty cats indoors people!

Since this was late July, I was fiending to find some migrant shorebirds...surprisingly, there are seemingly countless ponds and lakes in the area, but they pretty much all had too much water to support any shorebirds at all. Fossil Creek Reservoir had a couple hella distant sandpipers but these Lark Sparrows (adult and fledgling) in the parking lot were more fun to hang out with.

I don't remember my lifer Mountain Bluebird, American Dipper or Red-naped Sapsucker (was it at Galileo Hill?), but I do remember seeing Lark Sparrows for the very first time. This bird really left a mark on me...never underestimate the power of the Lark Sparrow, or suffer your father's fate you will. Whatever that is.

Both Eastern (above) and Western Kingbirds are very common in the area and happily (or bitterly?) use the same habitats, which is odd since they behave so similarly and are both famously hyperaggressive species...I guess there must be enough food to go around.

The next day we would make the drive out to the legendary Pawnee National Grasslands, where lunch would be served with a large side of longspurs. See you at the next post.


  1. Dippers are zen. My first lark sparrow was on the Carrizo.

  2. I did not want to look at this but I did anyway. Sigh. Frank's incredible luck lives on.

  3. So lucky to get great looks at those ptarmigans! Awesome shots!