Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Colorado Snow Loop

Big Year Days 85-88

United Airlines is not my friend, it never was.  They had delayed my wife’s arrival by two hours, as we were coming to Colorado from different airports on different planes.  I waited patiently…chatting to myself, when in doubt don’t fly United. 

This trip was harsh, exhausting, gut wrenching, and soul searching.  Silja and Lena came with too.  It was snowing before I came, it was snowing during my stay and the forecast was for more snow upon my departure, I headed out fast....El Nino, thanks ole' El...by the way, where are those west coast vagrants?

I did this trip last year for practice...we got all the birds so quickly we added birds and then done in 72 hours I flew home early...that was then this is now...what should I expect on a bad weather big year?  but Bad weather....

I had a list of 16 birds I could get, we hit the ground running  We headed west on I-70 into the teeth of a traffic jam.  It was stop and then just stopped.  It took us 3.5 hours to go an hour.  Loveland Pass was closed, any ptarmigan try was out…dang and worse, it was snowing and the police were checking for chains, and enforcing laws 15/16 of the vehicle code.  Luckily I had rented a Jeep at the advice of my wife, the lovely Silja.  Since no hazardous cargoes could go around on the pass, they had to stop traffic at the tunnel to let them through.

Tiring of the traffic jam and taking a break before any added accent to Vail Pass, we got off at Silverthorne and I went up Wildernest Rd to a neighborhood to lurk feeders.  It was barely passable to drive around in the heavy snow but rosy-finches of all three stripes were everywhere, they were loaded in the few feeders and trees of humdreds were spotted.  There was a few black ones but mostly Gray crowned and brown capped ones maybe a thousand or two in all...maybe more.  They were in trees coming to feeders and a lone gray-crowned by the car in the snow

 brown-capped rosy-finch

Here is a feeder,
But with the snow and bad lighting, hard to get photos.

Waunita Hot Springs Road, Gunnison Cty CO

We awoke at a relatively manageable 0515, and pulled out of Gunnison at 6am, and arrived the to the lek area about 20 minutes later.  On advice of Doug Kibbe, we parked about a quarter of a mile north of the viewing spot ignoring the signs which informed us that what I was doing wasn’t legal.  I could rag on the whole management of this bird for the public but I’m not sure anyone cares and I have.  Parking at viewing spot almost cost me a bird last year.  They mark viewable bird sightings on a sign that shows 1500 bird signings ten years ago and just 55 in 2015.  However, they don’t start until April 1st, and therefore didn’t include 8 from me last year.  Also if the lek moved north, it says nothing about dwindling bird numbers.

We turned off the lights as the light snow slows outside and waited, allowing our devices to charge up.  When I can see, I turn down the windows and we listened.  It takes not more than a minute to hear them, then I see one moving across the prairie, wait….It has a long bushy tail…a red fox, and this marks possibly the first time a red fox has been mistaken for a Gunnison sage-grouse.  I feel stupid.  No grouse here so I back up for a quarter mile.  We scour and then scour again, it is now maybe half light.  We are elevated and have a good view and then, I see some birds flush up, I can’t tell what they are and then they turn towards us, they get bigger...sage grouse, 26 in a flock and they go across the road north of us.  That is why we didn’t see them the night before.  They were on the sage on the hill way too far off to see.    Still hearing the lek, I scour the open areas and then I spy two males dancing, Gunnison sage grouse!  I set up my digiscope and snapped a few pictures.

Overcast, snow in the air, low light, it wasn’t a good, but half as close as my 2015 sightings.  Being 500 yards away, just driving off and going isn’t going to spook these birds and since I am not supposed to be here anyway we drive on. 

We drive on the road to the west and spot mule deer everywhere, my daughter is definitely part of this family in that she also likes deer.  Then we come across a CO Natural resources truck at a walk in spot which ominous closed signs.  I assume he has a much better lek to view, and I feel my anger rise a little, and so it is time to bolt west for more birds.

We get my daughter a triple on the open stretches of the Gunnison River when we spot a small flotilla of Barrow’s and Common goldeneye plus a bonus common merganser, and eventually we get to Black Canyon of the Gunnison as it starts to snow harder.  By the top and as we pass the gate, there is snow on the roads and when I pull into the visitor center I notice something bad, the road on the south rim is closed, a three foot snow drift blocks the road past the visitor center along with a sign.  My no fail, Clark’s nutcracker spot, inaccessible.  The area seems almost devoid of birds, except Townsend’s solitaires singing which I hadn’t photographed until now and a couple of scrub jays.

We have a Kodak moment with a German tourist who braved the walk to the overlook below snapping our picture, like us he said he wanted the look as he came all this way.  There was no hope of Dusky grouse, nutcrackers….nothing.

I take a photo of a Townsend's solitaire since I haven't this year

There is not grouse up there, we can't get to the Clark's nutcracker spot and all there is is snow.

The weather warmed to 45 and the snow magically was gone by the time we drove the few miles to Montrose, it was odd.  Suddenly, I had the urge to stay up on Grand Mesa.  I had seen Boreal Owl reported up there already but I didn’t know the area at all, thinking it was just like Colorado National Monument we booked a night at the Grand Mesa Lodge, as I thought, then I wouldn’t have to drive too far to call owls, and we had to stay somewhere.  Luckily, they had an opening…..

Grand Junction CO

At Colorado National Monument, my 6th visit, I think, we had a bit of luck, finally.  We stopped at Hanging Rock and waked around and I heard Pinyon Jays…oh, finding these rascals, isn’t so easy.  You can drive and drive and not ever find them  They travel in a large flock, sort of the blue hoard, and are consistent in their travels, until they aren't.  I have only seen them 4 times, once where they shouldn’t have been.  The flock came over the mesa, literally almost hit the mesa wall on the other side and then descended straight down and landed in a bush over the park road.   They allowed for a couple of pretty good pics.  I have not photographed this bird very well, so this was a treat.

Pinyon Jays.

Then on top near the visitor center, after more memories of the overlook, I got another year bird out of the junipers for a photo, juniper titmouses, or is it mice?  IDK.
Juniper Titmouse.

We looked over the edge for white-throated swift for a while but they never showed, I assume, too early for them since spring hadn’t arrived yet.

Cameo Wildhorse area is my lock it down and throw away the key spot for Chukar.  Doug warned me not to be so self confident, but I’ve been sending people here since I found it.  No one complained of dips.  We drove in on the bad road, past another makeshift shooting range out in public land, again making me wonder why?  I know of only one way to get this bird, besides dumb luck and I’m not sure if I would have time for that.  You walk into a good chukar area, and call.  One responds, and then you triangulate and locate.  We walked in about half a mile, I stopped, “this looks far enough.”  I said as we had encountered dogs right away but I had just passed some squirrels foraging in the very dry desert habitat that this is.  I called.  One immediately answered.  I got a bearing and my wife and I crossed the dry stream bed, as my daughter took up a skua-like position to snap a photo if one flew and then…it flushed.  I watched it land on the hillside, they always do and then walk up the hill.  I snapped a good picture.  We walked back to the car with a fist bump. 

  Grand Mesa CO

Serendipity is an odd thing.  Why did I have this urge to stay up on Grand Mesa?  Why? This or that?  Answers few have.  We left Cameo, drove three miles and turned up 65 to the Lodge, just as a snowstorm hit the top.  As I climbed into fog and snow, I was starting to get nervous, I didn’t like this.  We turned past Powderhorn Ski Area and it got more ominous, then snow on road and then in nearly whiteout conditions I passed an avalanche area that said no stopping.  I understood this warning unlike those at the sage grouse area and clenched the wheel.  I had overwhelming urges to turn back, at one spot where the road was clear before I resumed the accent, I almost wanted to cry.  Ever the stubborn Swede, I just kept going.  I wasn’t going to die today, was I?
Then we were there.  I got out of the Jeep, shaking and could barely walk.  Crap, I hate this.  We talked to the very positive owner of the lodge.  Then I asked about birds…”yes we have this really odd bird everyone apparently wants to see.  Had some woman come from England to see it.  They nest in that tree, he pointed.  They make such a racket, too.  Had no clue that was from a bird until three years ago, warned guests it was from some wild animal, but it was probably safe.  Then someone said the noise was from Boreal owls….”  I gasped quietly, the shakes stopped.  “They are quiet right now but around May 1st….”  Serendipity.

Our cabin was basically a snow cave with a cabin in it.  

The snow promptly stopped but as your can see there has been no shortage here.  We ate, the women passed out and at 8pm, I went out to call owls, hopeful but not overly so.  I walked to the top of the road and called.  Immediately before I was done with the second poop-poop-poop call, I had an answer.  I repeated and so did the response, but it wasn’t a poop-it was harsh barking.  If I hadn’t hung out with Rickey Olson in Pierre and worked so hard on saw-whets, I wouldn’t have realized the vocal range these little owls have.  My ibird and Sibley’s only had one call but I knew what I heard, but the xeno-cantho website had many many barks and squeals of the European version of this bird. 

 Oddly, I played some saw-whet calls and got nothing, then the poop-poop and the barking from up in trees on the cliff resumed about two notes int the poop.  After a few rounds I ran to get the ladies but alas when I returned…nothing.  The bird had either figured out I was not an owl or it had flown off to feed.  None-the less, I had a Boreal Owl!!!!!!!  Good bird!! 

I returned at 5 am as this was so cool I had to try again. I got out and turned on my speaker and hit the phone app.  My phone has a weird tick, every once in a while Lady Gaga and Bad Romance starts playing at top speaker volume.  This happened again and with my gloves and cold hands, it was like 5 degrees out, I couldn’t turn it off as Lady Gaga started bouncing in the valley in the predawn darkness...and I don't think the owl was dancing….thankfully, my phone discharged power and was off.  I had my owl, I went back for a warm bed with a woman sleeping in it, and eventually coffee.  All I can say is Serendipity. 

It was the beginnings of a technically challenged day.

We walked around the property, saw another three-toed woodpecker and heard it repeatedly, then finally after calling in Steller's jays for Lena's year, Cassin's finches perched for a great photo-op, a year bird.  Eventually tiring of the local birds and needing a Clark's Nutcracker, we packed up and drove up to pass and in a parking area found a lone Clark's........now I would show you my photos of these birds and those later in the day, but I forgot to replace the chip in my camera...I took some great photos....they even looked good on the camera, but with no chip, I got nothing.  My daughter won't share until she publishes her blog.  Oh well.

I took a Cassin's Finch photo on the next day
It was probably better.

My wife now understands what the Green cross signifies in Colorado, in France, it is a pharmacy, here...well....

Don't worry, it was Easter and they were closed, they share space with a liquor store, and a logistics company.

Loveland Pass

Back last year when I rolled though here, I had great luck at Loveland pass, elevation 11,990 in getting white-tailed ptarmigan, it was a once in a lifetime moment, the bird flew and landed at my feet, I had to step back to take a photo with my iphone.........this year?  There were skiers, tons of skiers on both sides of the pass this year.  Despite, me hearing the birding song on the way up the pass, nothing worked...my iphone didn't have a call for the birds, then it failed all together and just shut down.  It was windy, and I couldn't see any birds....It was a bust.  Why the birding song?

We searched for Williamson's sapsuckers without luck and finally, we just found a room.  March 28th was going to be a long..LONG day.

Guanella Pass

Swear words describe my thigh burn, my sunburn on my face, and burning lungs.  I sent my wife and daughter home (good thinking!) and Doug Kibbe, Denver Master Birder took me up on snowshoes to the closed pass to get the ptarmigan, THE spot for this bird...except it wasn't.  Last times up here over 30 and 50 ptarmigan....this time......the big 0...I don't know how far we hiked.  We hiked up and then through snow.  Then down through snow.  The highlight was sitting on a rock taking my lone picture.  I had oxygen choices and well, fat and out of shape I am.  Doug is much older than me and he made me look bad, even taking my pack around on the pass.  We criss-crossed and saw just one, day old track...I imagined something...then I miss called a herd of Elk...Bighorn...It was time to get off that God forsaken place.  I don't want to say any more....It was tiring..,I'm sick of 4 to six foot deep snow....

Now I have to hail Mary a ptarmigan....I will have to think about this bird, and the Dusky grouse, and sapsucker, my other big misses.  Doug took photos of me wore out in parking lot, ass-deep in snow, dragging bum up the hill, but I am not ready to see them or post them...too soon, the memory is still too painful.

I got 12/16, the Boreal owl was key but those d$%m grouse

Big Year Total:  518
Coded Birds:  36

Miles driven.  17,950
Flight Miles 58,200
flight segments: 57   Different Airports: 28
Hours at sea: 25
Miles walked 98
showshoes 4 (isn't going to be more)
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:20

507.  Brown-capped rosy-finch
508.  Black rosy-finch
509.  Gray-crowned rosy finch
510.  American three-toed woodpecker
511.  Gunnison Sage-grouse
512.  Sage Thrasher
513.  Pinyon Jay
514.  Juniper titmouse
515.  Chuckar
516.  Boreal owl
517.  Cassin's Finch
518.  Clark's Nutcracker

Rare birds in Arizona, I rented a second car and Doug graciously dropped me off at the Avis spot and away I go...Arizona with out snow.  I'll be back...at least I got the western side birds done...dang birds.


Heck Lena's total is now 341!!!!!!!!!!  Wow!

Here is her blog



1 comment:

  1. From now on everytime I hear lady gaga I will think of you. Good luck birding in Arizona, see you in a few weeks. Love you


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