Saturday, August 6, 2016

Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado. I ain't ever been there. I ain't ever birded there, but it offers some damn fine birding considering it is a landlocked state. Sure, July is not the time to go if you want to do the grouse/chicken rounds...but why not check it out? After all, Rocky Mountain National Park is there, and has a reliable spot for a species I very much wanted to meet...White-tailed Ptarmigan. So Billy and I planned a quick trip based out of Fort Collins, which was within striking distance of the park and Pawnee National Grasslands.

Since I only had a shot at one life bird, the best thing to do was go after year birds and birds that Billy hadn't seen. Some years I don't care about year birds (otherwise known as YBs, otherwise known as Yankee Bravos), but this year is not one of them. This is what happens when you start your year in Mexico and see an abundance of exotic species on a daily basis.

Our first stop in Fort Collins had Northern Flickers instead of the Bobolinks. I would have much rather have seen Bobolinks (who doesn't love Bobolinks?) but instead I was forced to wonder at how adaptable flickers are. You show me a habitat that features land, and I will show you a flicker. We did connect with some common species that I don't see very often; Eastern Kingbirds, Blue Jays, Gray Catbird and Common Grackles were good year birds.

The next day it was off to Rocky Mountain National Park. It was hard to figure out where exactly to go, as there are a lot of may or may not be able to get Scott Roederer's Birding Rocky Mountain National Park for a reasonable price (I could not at the time), which could help a lot. Upper Beaver Meadows is a popular place to bird, so that's where we started. Because I am stupid, we went down the wrong trail, but it was still mellow.

The first flock we ran into had a bunch of juvenile Red Crossbills practicing their face-scissors.

Types 2 and 5 are the most abundant Red Crossbill types in the area; judging by what they prefer to feed on and the surrounding habitat, these birds were likely Type 2 ("Ponderosa Pine Crossbill").

Mountain Bluebirds are one of the kings of cripple in western birds. Few other western birds are so obscene in their salient beauty. If everyone paused and took a good look at a Mountain Bluebird, there would be a lot more birders out there. Now, I'm not saying that is a good thing (have you ever talked to a birder? yeesh), but it is the truth.

Juvenile Mountain Bluebirds don't start life coated in mesmerizing, sky blue plumage. Because of this, they all wear frowny faces instead.

On the trail, I noticed this flower getting pollinated. On the way back, Billy pointed out that the pollinator was dead on the petal. Pollen overdose?

Napes. This perfectly camouflaged crab spider had been lying in wait. When the yellow death pulls your card, there is no escape.

Rocky Mountain National Park lies with the eastern Rocky Mountains. Downslope (east) from the park, the Great Plains begin. A large number of western species are at the edge of their range here, including Pygmy Nuthatch.

Like many other species in the area, Western Tanagers were busy making food deliveries. An absurd proportion of the birds we saw were either recently-fledged juveniles, or were carrying food to waiting young. So goes birding in late July.

One of the target birds for any birder at Upper Beaver Meadows is American Three-toed Woodpecker. We failed to find any (here and elsewhere in the park), but again this is probably due to going down the wrong trail. However, the wrong trail did produce another very good species, a yankee bravo, and one that I hadn't seen in several years. This juvenile female Williamson's Sapsucker was following around it's mother, which was detected by giving an unusual rolling/churring call, very different from what I've heard from other sapsucker species.

Life plumage! This is also the first Williamson's to ever make it to BB&B...rejoice! Hopefully it won't be so many years before I connect with one again. This is, after all, the best sapsucker.

Unlike bluebirds and tanagers, faded Vesper Sparrows do not make people weak in the knees, do not illicit stuttering speech. This is not a bird beloved by the lowest common denominator, this is a bird that strikes fear into the timid heart of the beginning birder...when you were just starting out, do you remember how many Savannah Sparrows you tried to make into Vespers? Dozens? Hundreds? Those birders that overcome this identification hurdle do eventually accept Vesper Sparrows as what they are...a pleasant singer, and champion of The Economy of Style.

While I only saw one Vesper Sparrow in RMNP, Lincoln's Sparrows (a Mellowspiza) were abundant in areas with riparian and aspen growth, where we were bombarded by repeated volleys of their mellowdious song. I always forget what gifted singers these otherwise unobtrusive birds are. In California, they absolutely refuse to sing away from high elevation breeding habitat, which I have but limited and irregular access to.

Coming up next...after mixed success at Upper Beaver Meadows, we were off uphill to visit the alpine.


  1. Great post. I have to agree that the Willie Sap is one of the best woodpeckers.

  2. Great Read!! Love the Vesper Sparrow...someday...mine too will come!