Flying Away

2015 wasn’t supposed to include a Colorado trip.  After our visit last summer, I wasn’t planning to go back for a long time. Life had other plans as it so often does, and on May 29th I found myself on an airplane heading back to Colorado to say a final goodbye to my Aunt Carol who lost her fight with cancer.  This mountain valley had now lost some of its beauty and charm.

Wet Mountain Valley

Aunt Carol meant a great deal to many, many people.  I have many fond memories of staying at Uncle Jon and Aunt Carol’s house as kid and then visiting them a few times as an adult.  She had a zest for life and was always game for something fun and spontaneous, especially if it involved having a good time with people she loved. In these ways she embodied the things I enjoy most about birding.  Speaking of birding, Aunt Carol has always been a big fan of birds. Long, long before I was a birder, I remember her raving about the beauty of the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that would visit their Minnesota home.  I remember thinking that was something I had to see.

Rose-breasted GrosbeakIn her Colorado home, Aunt Carol spoke fondly of the Mountain Bluebirds which are common at their mountain residence. Carol had quite the special relationship with these birds as a pair would nest right outside her bedroom.  Last year she showed us how she could give a whistle and the male would fly in.  It was pretty neat.

Aunt Carol's "pet" Mountain Bluebird

Aunt Carol’s “pet” Mountain Bluebird

On this trip to Colorado my cousin Danny pointed out decorations Carol put on her patio doors to help these Bluebirds avert window strikes.

Another bird that reminds me of Aunt Carol is the Bushtit.  Last year she got quite a kick out of the bird’s humorous name, laughingly saying, “I think I’d like to see some of those Bushtits for myself!”

Bushtit

This trip was not a birding trip, but you can’t go to Colorado without seeing cool birds.  Since we were flying in late at night on a Friday, busy with family most of Saturday, and flying home around noon on Sunday, there was only the slightest of margins to see these birds. However, don’t confuse birding the margins with marginal birding.  Regardless of one’s time budget, good birds can easily be had in this state.  I have a lot of birding left to do in Colorado that will require more trips, but knowing I wouldn’t have much time on this trip, I took a precision approach.  I would focus on just one bird–a very common and very conspicuous bird I had never seen: the Bullock’s Oriole.  It was very doable.

My brother, Jason, and I flew into Denver together and spent Friday night there.  The next morning we would be joining my cousin, Karin, for the three-hour drive down to Westcliffe.  With the help of eBird, I found Sondermann Park which was convenient stop in Colorado Springs just two blocks off I-25 at exit 144 where several Bullock’s Orioles had recently been reported.  With trails that were short and right by the parking area, I convinced Karin and Jason that this would be a good stretch break.

Western birds were readily apparent with a Spotted Towhee being the first bird we saw/heard.

Spotted Towhee

I was practically racing along the paths looking for my Oriole since we were short on time.  In the meantime, it was fun to run into several Western Tanagers. I promise there’s one in this photo.

Western Tanager

I did have better looks later on at some other WETAs, but I did something I don’t normally do–I enjoyed them through binoculars only.  Other birds adding to the western flavor were a couple of Western Wood Pewees and a lone Bushtit.  Eventually, though, I finally heard the familiar ratcheting call of a Bullock’s Oriole which sounds nearly identical to our Baltimore Oriole back home.  The Bullock’s and Baltimore were once considered a single species known as the Northern Oriole.  Genetic studies caused the species to be split into two in the 1990s.  Despite hearing the bird, I either saw it in bad light or briefly as an orange streak in good light.  Very unsatisfying, but a life bird nonetheless.  We had to get back on the highway, though, so better looks would have to wait until some future date.

What did give great looks were some appropriately named Violet-green Swallows at our hotel in Westcliffe.

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

The trip was quite a whirlwind as Aunt Carol’s memorial service and a memorable family/friend gathering back at her house filled out the rest of the day.  Before I knew it, it was time to wake up and hit the road back to Denver.  I woke before my two traveling companions to see what birds might be around the hotel and to enjoy the refreshing morning.

Westcliffe Inn

Birds or no birds, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at sunrise are pretty spectacular.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains

I did see one last pair of Mountain Bluebirds.  Fitting.

Mountain Bluebird

A short walk in the neighborhood gave me my second, equally unsatisfying, lifer of the trip. In the dim morning light I glassed a bird with a white chin, rufous cap, and long tail.  It was a Green-tailed Towhee.  I was also surprised to find a White-crowned Sparrow; I didn’t know they were summer residents here.

Shortly thereafter, Karin, Jason, and I hit the road.  As we were coming through the Hardscrabble Pass of the Wet Mountains, Jason slammed on the brakes startling us all.  There was a flock of sheep on the road.  Wait, those sheep had some big, curled horns–Big Horn Sheep!!

Big Horn SheepIn all, there were 11 of them.  I was surprised at how little they were.  I suppose, though, they look much bigger when they are up on a mountain cliff.

Big Horn Sheep

Big Horn SheepThis was a very fun encounter once our hearts stopped racing.  We completed the grand slam of big game mammals on our drive by also seeing a buck Pronghorn, three cow Elk, and a couple of Mule Deer.

Once we got Karin to the airport, Jason and I had an hour-and-a-half to kill before we had to be at the airport ourselves.  Guess what is right next door to Denver International Airport? Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge!  It is a massive area and the perfect place to kill an hour.  Stopping in at the visitor’s center, I saw Say’s Phoebes and Western Kingbirds and learned the best place to find Bullock’s Orioles in a short time frame.  Additionally, the docent told us about a secret exit from the Refuge for getting back to the airport quickly.  If you want to do some birding before your flight and are crunched for time like we were, stop in the visitors’ center and ask about this exit.

Jason and I went straight for the tree-lined 7th Ave.  Most people head this way to see the resident Buffalo herd.  That’s old hat for us.  I was after a small, orange bird.  As I scanned the Cottonwoods lining the road while we cruised, Black-billed Magpies could be seen periodically.  We had seen quite a few on the trip, especially coming through Colorado Springs.  The ones at Rocky Mountain Arsenal are skilled at doing Common Nighthawk impressions.

Black-billed Magpie

In no time I spotted the orange bird I was after and redeemed my initial sighting of the Bullock’s Oriole the day before. Success.

Bullock's Oriole

Bullock's Oriole

After a little bit more exploring, Jason and I took the secret exit out of the Refuge.  And there on the exit road was a sad, symbolic reminder of the reason for our trip: a drake Mallard was standing vigil over his freshly killed mate.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

You will always be in our hearts, Aunt Carol. We will miss you!

GOOD Morning Sax-Zim Bog!

After a successful hunt for a Gyrfalcon lifer and a Boreal Chickadee photo on Sunday, I was primed for a day of different birding objectives when I woke up at the in-laws’ house in the Northwoods Monday morning. I was expecting magic–I was going to the Sax-Zim Bog.  Part of that excitement was that, when given the choice between the Bog or hanging out with Grandma for the morning, Evan chose the Bog.  Based on recent knowledge I had, I knew this could be a special day of lifering and just downright fun birdwatching for him.  Doing something science-based eased the parental guilt of pulling him out of school on this day, especially since science (and other subjects) get pushed to the margins in this era of standardized testing where math and reading reign supreme.  Forget the guilt, I felt like I was doing something good.

Getting him up that morning was tough, but the promise of McDonald’s breakfast and the morning’s main objective-seeing Sharp-tailed Grouse do their courtship dance on a lek-was enough to get him going.  We left the house under an amazing starry sky (truly, there is no better place to see the night sky) to try to get to the lek around first light.  However, the breakfast errand and my negligence in not planning extra time to get all the way to Meadowlands in the southwest corner of the Bog caused a delay in my plans.  Needless to say, I was haulin’ down Co. Rd. 7.

Still, I brake for Great Gray Owls.  Coffee is a great way to start the day, but these are even better way to get the day off on the right foot.

Great Gray Owl

Note the distinct white “mustache” which is visible even in the diminished light of dawn and dusk.

I’d love to tell you how I spotted this thing, but you deserve the truth: I saw hazard lights in the dim morning light.  That usually means one thing in the Bog. Immediately I looked in the vicinity of the stopped car and saw the giant silhouette.  Brakes were slammed. A sleeping child was woken. Game on!  I was NOT expecting to see a Great Gray this trip.  They have been very sporadically seen since early January.  Many out-of-state visitors dipped on this species this winter.   Interestingly I had seen a report of a Great Gray on Co. Rd. 7 the previous evening, so I was keeping my eyes peeled.  I’d like to think I would have spotted it on my own.  But really, who cares? These things are just fun to see–well worth delaying our Sharp-tailed Grouse plans even more.

Great Gray Owl

Call me crazy, but I prefer to watch Great Gray Owls on gray overcast days and in gloomy light.  There’s just something fitting about it that adds to the mystique of this bird.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

Despite this good fortune, I was confounded.  How much time could I devote to watching this owl?  I had to get to the lek if I wanted to see Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Why does birding always have to be so stressful and full of decisions?!  Mr. Owl, or I should say Mr. Crow helped me out.  After 15 minutes or so of owl-watching, an American Crow flew in out of nowhere right at the Great Gray.  It was awesome to watch the owl’s defense posture, spreading out his wing and ducking his head.  But he didn’t want to be bothered any more, so he departed for the deep, gray recesses of the Tamarack bog behind him.  Evan was using my camera at the time to get good looks at the owl, so I wasn’t able to capture this. I will offer up a short video for your viewing pleasure, though.

Next stop was the lek just north and east of the intersection of Co. Rd. 29 and Racek Rd. We got there around 8:15.  Birding friend Clinton Nienhaus had told me that he had observed the grouse dancing around 7:30 last week, which was 8:30 this week thanks to Daylight Savings Time.  So we were still on time.  I found the small group of eight Sharp-tailed Grouse over a quarter mile east of the white house.  They were little brown dots in a field of snow, very far from even the camera’s view. We were able to view them a little closer from Racek Rd.

Sharp-tailed GrouseAnd they were doing their courtship dances!  It was an incredible thing to watch even from a distance.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse

This was a life bird for Evan.  It wasn’t even a state bird for me; I had seen a group of 12 or so about 18 years ago pecking grit off MN Hwy. 73 near Sturgeon.  So for me it was fun to see this bird as a birder and add it to my state eBird list.  Evan and I really enjoyed watching these grouse.  We sat together, him on my lap, watching the dances on the camera’s LCD out the driver’s side window.   We were quite content to just hang out and see what they’d do.  Under the weight of a freshly minted 8-year-old I was reminded of how quickly time passes and how kids don’t stay little long.  Sharing this moment with Evan and watching these birds is one I won’t forget.

The previous weekend my friend Steve Gardner saw these same Grouse on the same day Clinton saw them dancing on the lek.  However, Steve saw them at a later time in the morning as they were running around the yard of the white house where many people have been seeing them come to the bird feeders.  Piecing these two observations together, I knew that eventually the Grouse would head for the white house after their courtship dances.  Sure enough, around 8:45, the theatrics were over and protagonist and antagonist Grouse alike hung up their theatrical costumes, slapped backs like old friends, congratulated each other on another great performance, and headed to the bar…er, bird feeders.

Evan and I hopped onto Co. Rd. 29 for better views.  The lek is to the left of the garage and behind the row of pines about a quarter mile.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

It was a gray day, but we were still able to photo crush some Sharptails. ‘Sharptails’ is a throw-back term to when I hunted them long ago in Montana.  It’s just what people called them, and I have trouble letting go of that nickname for the cumbersome official name.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

I didn’t get many shots because something spooked the Grouse back to the lek area. Looking at this last picture I took, I’m guessing a raptor of some sort was cruising overhead.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Like the Great Gray, these Sharptails made it easy for us to move on to something new in the Bog.  Next stop was the Admiral Road feeding station; Evan needed a Boreal Chickadee lifer, and I wanted more photos as well as a lifer Black-backed Woodpecker that had been hanging out just south of the feeders.

By the time we got to Admiral Road, the overcast sky was gone, and it was a glorious blue-sky day.  There were a couple of cars of birders at the feeders.  We watched for the Boreal Chickadees for awhile but weren’t seeing them.  So I got out and walked the road looking and listening for the Black-backed.  An Ohio birder approached me asking what I was looking for, and I learned that he hadn’t seen the Chickadees after a half hour wait. Yikes. Maybe Evan won’t get that lifer today.  Just as we were going to give up, though, the Boreals stormed the feeders!  Mr. Ohio and Evan lifered at the same time.  Evan was about 10 feet away from the feeders and didn’t need me to point out his new bird.  So stunning in the now gorgeous light!

Time to move on again.  As much as I’d like a Black-backed Woodpecker, I was more anxious to get a Hawk Owl for the winter.  I can probably get the resident Black-backed Woodpecker in the summer.  On the way to Hellwig Creek (mile marker 29) on Hwy. 53, we bumped into a Northern Shrike and three Black-billed Magpies.  How is that you can walk up to these things in a parking lot in Colorado and club them if you choose, and yet I can never get one to stay still for a photo in northern Minnesota?

Black-billed Magpie

Evan and I were now racing the clock as we went south of the Bog toward Canyon on Hwy. 53 in search of the Hellwig Hawk Owl.  Grandma was bringing Marin southbound after a morning of tea parties, nail-paintings, etc to meet us so the kids and I could leave the area before noon to get back home in time for Evan’s piano lesson.  Hawk Owls are quite conspicuous when present, often perching on top of Spruce trees.  I just could not locate it.  Maybe it had gone north already.  Nuts! I really wanted to see this owl again. This was one of my main birding goals for the trip.

Evan and I headed north again to meet up with Grandma and Marin, only we were stopped in our tracks by a Timber Wolf crossing the road!  It stopped broadside just 30 feet from the car, but I couldn’t get the camera out in time.  Instead I got a running shot as it went down the snowmobile trail.

wolf

Sadly we discovered the wolf was injured as it carried one paw.  Evan was pretty distraught over it, wanting me to call somebody even.  I assured him, perhaps incorrectly, that the wolf would be okay. (Though it did look a bit skinny.)

wolf

After rendezvousing with Grandma and Marin at the Anchor Lake Rest Area, the kids and I were now headed south.  I would be going by mile marker 29 one last time.  It was my last hope for Hawk Owl.  I texted JG Bennett and Clinton Nienhaus to get more info on which side of the highway it had been seen.  JG shot back right away that it was the west side.  At least I now had somewhere to focus.  As we went by Hellwig Creek, I scanned every Spruce top. Nothing.  Then, there! A glob in an Aspen tree of all places was moving! It was Hellwig, the Hawk Owl!!  Do you see him?  And do you see all those perfect Spruce tops he’s NOT sitting on?

Hawk Owl

This was my first time photographing a Northern Hawk Owl with a blue sky background.  Now if only I could get the classic shot on top of a Spruce with a blue sky!

Northern Hawk Owl

This Hawk Owl didn’t care about anything, especially that I was underneath photographing him.  Didn’t bother him one bit.  In fact, he went about his business of becoming the cleanest Hawk Owl in the land.  These things remind me of cats.

First the feet.

Northern Hawk Owl

Then the pits.

Northern Hawk Owl

And then the uh, you know.

Northern Hawk Owl

Hawk Owls, like many owls, are birds of many faces and poses.

Here’s Mr. Bean.

Northern Hawk Owl

Here’s Oscar the Grouch

Northern Hawk Owl

And finally the classic look is its namesake, a bird that looks like an owl but perches like a hawk.

Northern Hawk Owl

Here’s another short video that captures some of the essence of this awesome owl.

So there you have it. Two lifers for Evan (Boreal Chickadee and Sharp-tailed Grouse), four birding objectives of mine met (lifer Gyrfalcon, photograph of Boreal Chickadee, eBird record of Sharp-tailed Grouse, and year bird Northern Hawk Owl), and sprinkle in a bonus Great Gray Owl and other cool northern birds for taste–I’d say it was a successful end-of-winter field trip up north.  And we were home around the time that Evan would have gotten done with school for the day.The northern gulls, sea ducks, and Black-backed Woodpecker will have to wait for another winter trip.  For now, though I must tie up some loose ends and prepare for a lifer-fest in Arizona in a couple weeks.

Sax-Zimmin’ with Dad and Grousin’ with Evan

IMG_0920Last week we enjoyed an extra-long weekend due to fall break, so we made the 265-mile trek home to northern Minnesota to visit our families and enjoy the beautiful northwoods. Going up north is always a delight, but doing so in the fall is special treat.  The stunning colors, the perfect temps, and the sweet smell of decaying Aspen leaves all remind us of this great land in which my wife and I grew up.  Let’s not forget the birds, though.  Northern Minnesota has its own species of interest that are not found in most of the state or the country for that matter. To that end, I had been coveting some recent pictures in my Facebook feed of Great Gray Owls in Tamarack trees in the Sax-Zim Bog.  The Bog is only 45 minutes south of my parents’ place, so I usually try to hit it up each time I go home.

Since Great Grays are crepuscular, the best times to see them are in the hour of first light and the hour of last light. We arrived at Mom and Dad’s in the early afternoon, but after a couple hours of visiting, Dad and I were headed south to try to find a Great Gray before dark. I never get tired of seeing this owl and the possibility of seeing them in the golden yellow Tamaracks was very appealing.  Tamaracks are a conifer found in boggy land, and their needles are green in the summer, turn gold in the fall, and then drop like the leaves of deciduous trees.  They are as fascinating as they are beautiful, especially when their fallen needles transform gravel roads to streets of gold.

Dad and I trolled up and down McDavitt Road several times at 5 MPH, scanning every snag and every possible perch for the Great Gray Ghost. This was the road where they’d been seen within the last week, so it was where we concentrated our search.  I was hoping to see an owl, get my desired shots, and then take some scenery shots to show off the yellow landscape of the Tamaracks interspersed with the vivid green of the Black Spruce. But, every possible second of remaining daylight was given to the search, and we were coming up empty.  I did stop to take a picture of a porcupine snoozing in a Tamarack.  Whether he’s lazy or relaxed, I just couldn’t resist the photo-op.

porcupine

porcupine

I’m afraid the porcupine was the only interesting thing we’d see in the Bog.  There were hardly any birds around, let alone any interesting species.  The next morning I continued my owl hunt closer to home as they have been found within 5 miles of my folks’.  I have yet to see one so close, but I’m determined! That determination will have to carry me forward because my luck was no different on this outing.  The birding was better than in the Sax-Zim Bog, though, as I found some Gray Jays and a couple of Ruffed Grouse.  The skittish grouse bolted when I popped up through the sunroof for a picture.

Speaking of grouse, my previous fall breaks in the northwoods used to be consumed with me pursuing Ruffed Grouse with a shotgun.  On the surface it may seem a bit of a contradiction that I’m a birder who hunts.  However, it is that interest in nature and wildlife that comes with hunting that helped propel me into this obsessive birding habit. Though I still hunt on a limited basis (just Ruffed Grouse and Ring-necked Pheasants), it is is not as interesting to me as birding, where I can experience the thrill of the hunt and the beauty of nature without the restrictions of seasons, state lines, and bag limits.  The thrill of locking eyes with a Great Gray is much more appealing. Maybe I’m just growing up.  When I saw the two grouse I wasn’t even interested in grabbing my gun out of the back of the car.

Despite my shift into birding, I still have a young boy and old dog who very much would like to chase some game.  So one morning I took Evan and my Yellow-Lab, Faith, on a short walk on my parents’ 80 acres.  Faith led the way with a vigor that belied her age (she lives for this), and Evan was several paces behind me.  We were hunting on trails in an area with young Aspens (about 10-15 years old).  It is perfect habitat that produces grouse every year.  This year was no exception as all of us, dog included, were startled by the pounding wings of our first grouse.  Though it was close, none of us saw it because of how thick the woods were.  That’s how it often goes.  We soldiered on and hiked on a trail carpeted in clover, a favorite food of the Ruffed Grouse.  The surrounding woods here were young Aspen trees 4-5 feet high growing up and around the stumps and logs of the mature Aspen stand the was here just a couple years ago.  Going off trail would be an impossible task.  Anyhow, when I paused at a bend along the trail, there was an explosion of wings to my left from the thick young trees and tangle of downed logs. Two grouse rocketed out.  I could only see one and only for a split second because of the surrounding trees and brush.  I fired a couple of times but missed.  It didn’t bug me.  As Faith was now investigating the scent of these birds (she was a little late) and I was contemplating the miss, a third grouse got up from the same spot!  Again, I only saw it briefly and fired the last shell I had in my gun.  No luck.  Ruffed Grouse are probably the most difficult game bird to hit on the fly because they live in the woods where your chances of hitting them are not as good as hitting the branches and trees they fly through.  To emphasize this point, a couple of colleagues recently returned from a grouse-hunting trip, and they had 55 flushes but only 3 kills.  I was not sad over the misses.  Evan got to see some grouse flush and watch me shoot.  He was happy.  Faith was doing what she was made for.  She was happy.  I didn’t have any birds to clean and eat.  I was happy.  Plus it was really special to see three grouse together; they are normally found as singles.

My birding pursuits continued Up North.  Dad and I made a dawn raid on the Sax-Zim Bog one of the mornings, arriving there just as you could make out the silhouettes of the trees. The best we could muster were some Gray Jays in low light.  All was well – birding the Bog with Dad is a great excuse to visit and drink some coffee.  Seeing owls is just a bonus.

Gray Jay

Gray Jays and Ruffed Grouse are some nice northern Minnesota birds, but I had a great find while I was out driving on my own one afternoon.  I had seen a couple of birds fly and thought they were ducks.  The habitat wasn’t right though since there wasn’t any water around.  I drove that way and was startled to see Black-billed Magpies!! I found four in all, and one even came out to the road to pick at something.

Black-billed MagpieI remember when I first got into birding and being shocked that this cool bird could be found in Minnesota since I had never seen one in my life up to that point.  They are known to frequent the Sax-Zim Bog. In fact, the Bog is the furthest location to the east where this species breeds.  I have seen them in the Bog and in northwestern Minnesota, but I was astounded to find them so close to where I grew up.  It was hands-down the best find of the trip.

I had better bog-birding outside of Sax-Zim on this trip.  Perhaps the only thing the Bog has on the birding scene around my parents’ place is the number of birders scouring it. Given the recent finds though, I might have to keep up the lone-rangering.  When I finally find a Great Gray on my parents’ road, it will be all the more sweeter because it’s close to home far from where birders trod.  The hunt will resume at Thanksgiving, and I can’t wait.

Birding Colorado Springs – Blodgett Peak Open Space and Garden of the Gods

After our brief visit to the Badlands and Black Hills, we were headed south to the Colorado Springs area where we were going to meet up with two of my cousins that I hadn’t seen in years. The fastest way to the Springs was to shoot down through Nebraska, but common sense prevailed and we opted for a slightly longer route that would take us down through Wyoming. We were in the west after all; we might as well see some of it and tally a new state for the kids.

The beauty of the Black Hills and the Oglala National Grasslands in western South Dakota continued to amaze us.  And the birds were pretty great too.  At one point, three Black-billed Magpies flew across the road.  Good birds but nothing new.  Lark Buntings continued their ubiquity along the fencelines of Oglala.  I also spied a Common Nighthawk perched on a fence post.  I almost hit the brakes for that photo op, but I couldn’t risk being late in the Springs, and one must limit the number of birding emergency stops for fear of making the non-birding family members weary.

Instead I spent one of my limited emergency birding stops on this guy – the Ferruginous Hawk!!  A spendid and thrilling life bird indeed, a birder’s hawk for sure.

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk

There were more raptors perched on poles, but we were in a hurry and couldn’t afford to stop anymore even if I did need to find a Swainson’s Hawk for Evan and for my photo collection.  After all, there were relatives to catch up with, good barbecue to eat, and lizards to catch.

Evan lizardEvan’s cousin Andrew showed him the ropes for catching these cool lizards, and Evan caught this one all on his own.  As someone who had cages full of lizards as a kid, I wanted to keep this one in the worst way.  Even Melissa said it was cute. If Evan had asked, I couldn’t say no.  But he didn’t ask, so there was no moral dilemma of the lizard variety.

As Evan played with lizards, I checked out the birds hanging around my cousin’s house. I saw many of our species from back home, but we did pick up the Broad-tailed Hummingbird which would become probably the most common bird of the trip.  Its metallic buzzing could be heard almost everywhere we went.  Otherwise, Mountain Bluebirds, which would also become quite common, were still captivating at this point.

Female Mountain Bluebird

Female Mountain Bluebird

Male Mountain Bluebird

Male Mountain Bluebird

As fun as it was to hang out with my relatives, all good things must come to an end as they say.  So we grabbed a hotel room in town before our journey into the mountains of south-central Colorado near Westcliffe. As I had done in Hot Springs, I was up that next morning before first light so I could do some solo birding before everyone was awake. eBird was again very helpful in finding me a birding locale within a short drive from our hotel. I went up the side of the mountain on the very western edge of the Springs where I birded Blodgett Peak Open Space.  This big fella was there to greet me.

Mule Deer Buck

Mule Deer Buck

Once again the first bird to greet me of the morning was the Spotted Towhee.  I was hoping for better photo ops, but the day was too young and not very accommodating with its early-morning light.  It’s too bad because this bird was everywhere and close.  I really wanted that killer photo to solidify my first sighting back home in Minnesota last April.  But it wasn’t to be.  Not yet anyway.

One of the first lifers I heard that morning but took awhile to see was the Mountain Chickadee.  The song I was hearing was definitely chickadee in origin, but definitely different from our Black-capped variety back home.  Eventually, though, I was able to lay eyes on this spastic seed-eater.  This was a hoped-for lifer of the trip.

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain ChickadeeFrom reading the eBird reports I was expecting to find Western Scrub Jays.  It took me awhile, but I found a couple of this life bird.

Western Scrub Jay

Western Scrub Jay

On my quiet walk with no other people around I also found a lifer Virginia’s Warbler.  In typical warbler fashion, it wasn’t posing for any photos, and I just wasn’t up for chasing down a good photo of a bland bird.

Virginia's Warbler

Virginia’s Warbler

Walking in the mountains is always a good way to start the day, even more so when you tally three life birds in the process.

Getting back to the hotel I was greeted by one of the literal trash birds of the west, the Black-billed Magpie.  It’s such a shame that such a good-looking bird lowers its standards to the likes of gulls and jays by eating things one can only find in parking lots and such. There must have been a dozen hopping through the parking lot, standing on dumpsters, walking the rooflines of the hotel, and disappearing into the pines across the street.  It was fun to actually photograph them up close and in good light – something I have not been able to do in the Sax-Zim Bog.  I had never really seen the blue tint on them before, and I also discovered that their eyes are blue too!

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

After enjoying the magpies and getting the family assembled, we headed to Garden of the Gods.  We visited this National Natural Landmark five years ago, but with its other-worldly rock outcroppings it is a must-see each visit.

Central Garden at Garden of the Gods

Central Garden at Garden of the Gods

If you can look past the artificial hand-holding, you can see that the natural beauty abounds.IMG_0129

And the birds are beautiful here too as this brazen and audacious Western Scrub Jay shows while he prowled the parking lot for picnic leftovers or eyeballs of tourists napping in chairs.  It was good that Evan got to tally this lifer too since I had got mine earlier that morning.

Evan's Western Scrub Jay lifer

Evan’s Western Scrub Jay lifer

Melissa spied this Violet-green Swallow perched conspicuously on a snag.  It was fun to see its true colors as its namesake implies.

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

While Evan tried to climb rocks,

Evan

I tried to photograph missiles with wings, known as White-throated Swifts.

White-throated Swift (if you squint)

White-throated Swift (if you squint)

Neither of us were very good.  But we both had fun trying.

At one point I heard a Spotted Towhee singing its song.  I was still on the hunt for a good photo of this bird.  I dragged the family to the spot, and we all looked unsuccessfully.  Finally I decided to pull the plug.  Then Evan cried out, “But Dad, I’ve never seen one!”  I completely forgot he needed this lifer!  I never was able to get him on the bird in our own county, so apparently it had been gnawing at him that I had this bird and he didn’t.  Alright, so now it was more than just getting a photo; it was a genuine life bird hunt.

We still couldn’t see this particular bird we were looking for, but it didn’t matter because we eventually heard another one singing his heart out from the top of a juniper.  Evan got his lifer. I got my photo. Whew.  It felt doubly good.  I could finally put that great sighting from back in April to rest.  And so could Evan. Little did I know that the Spotted Towhee would be obscenely common for the rest of our trip.

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Colorado Springs held a nice cache of life birds (and relatives) for us.  After Garden of the Gods, we were headed up to the mountains in Custer County.  Coming up will be perhaps the best birding we would experience the whole trip.