Friday, June 24, 2011

Cheyenne Mountain State Park

Cheyenne Mountain State Park, just south of Colorado Springs, is a wonderful place to stay if you are interested in hiking, mountain biking, or observing the wildlife of this transitional habitat, where the plains of Colorado meet the eastern edge of Cheyenne Mountain’s peak.  Cheyenne Mountain is Colorado’s newest state park, and the campground is designed to accommodate the modern RV.  Be forewarned, there is no shade in the campground, so it could get hot during the summer months.  But the views are lovely, and we’ve arrived to a week of perfect temperatures. 
The state park sits in an interesting location:  just below NORAD’s road to THE Mountain, and just above Ft. Carson.  The location has the negative of road noise from Ft. Carson.  But I kind of like the bugle calls, with Reveille calling me to hit the trail to hike and bird.  I do not know the names of all the calls we’ve heard, but after dawn’s Reveille we also hear a bugle call at noon, 5:00 pm, and then Taps, at dusk.  I greatly appreciate the rigor and discipline of the routine, not to mention the order, which these calls represent.  And, as a birder, I just kind of like the sound of the bugle call.
The state park’s location has the positive of looking up at our nation’s center for air defense, allowing the camper to ponder the extent of infrastructure within The NORAD Mountain.  Of course we Stargate fans know exactly what goes on inside the mountain.  I keep expecting to see the SG-1 crew go by on their way to work. 

For me, this park is all about hiking and birding.  We are spending four days hiking the park, and have quickly returned to our routine of getting up early to hit the trail, usually before 7 a.m.  We hike and bird for 4-6 hours, then return to the Airstream for a first meal of the day and relaxing at our campsite for the early afternoon.  Late afternoon will bring about a short hike, before dinner and evening shower.  I tend to spend my early afternoon reviewing bird sightings, downloading photos, and attempting some writing.  The rick-man updates his bird list and then sits in the shade of the trailer to read or make lovely music with his Martin backpacker guitar.  The below trailhead connects to our campsite:

The main draw of this park is its twenty miles of trails, available to both hikers and mountain bikes.  The trails are in fantastic shape and range from the flat grasslands with prairie dogs, to the more rugged terrain of mountainside slopes, forested with Ponderosa Pine. My favorite trails are the upper woodland hikes in the ponderosa and scrub oak forest:

The birding is excellent, even though I have NOT seen my hoped-for species: Townsend’s Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and MacGillivary’s Warbler.  I have added two new lifers, both hummers:  the Broad-tailed Hummingbird and the Rufous Hummingbird.  Sighting hummers “in the wild” is a completely different experience that watching them feed on sugar-water feeders.  I’ll hear them first—then whoosh, they go past, and sometimes delight with landing on a nearby tree limb.  One of my favorite observations this week was watching a female Broad-tailed dive bomb a Common Raven, perched in the top of a pine.  If you aren’t familiar with a raven, think of an American Crow—then think larger.  The Raven must have perched too close to mama hummer’s nesting neighborhood.

This trip I’ve committed myself (due in part to the gentle but persistent coaxing of a sibling) to more field photography.  Carrying a day pack, binoculars, and camera body with 400 mm lens, four to five hours on semi-challenging terrain deserves, I believe, its own bugle call. 

The birds on my list to chase would be found in the forested uplands of the park.  This means looking up, and shooting through branches.  I do not have the camera equipment or the dexterity for manually focusing on warblers, vireos and the like.  So using my auto-focus, and shooting “up” most often gives me a focused view of a branch, and little else.  Or sometimes, a good shot will look something like this:

This underside view of an Ovenbird, gleaning food for young, is sometimes as good as it gets.  Occasionally a few focused shots come out to give me a more full view, in this case of the Ovenbird:

A Western Bluebird:

A House Wren:

And after many hours of chasing the tree-top species, it can simply feel good to get a nice shot of my mother’s favorite bird, the American Robin, in its summer habitat:

The photographic miss of the week was of a turkey hen moving across the trail and into the woods with her brood of five or six youngsters.  I didn’t get the photo or the exact count of juveniles as I caught sight of a bobcat within twenty yards.  The bobcat instantaneously turned me from hiker/birder into Chicken Little.  I moved slowly away rather than taking photographic opportunity, making more noise than usual.  The bobcat headed away into the upper terrain, and the mama turkey and brood moved along further below.  I missed photos of both.  Mama turkey did give a look backwards toward me, as if to say thanks.  I’m always thrilled to know a habitat is healthy enough to support natural predators.  I’m also just as happy not to be close enough for a great photo.
An interesting subset of the species sighted this week:
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Wild Turkey
Western Wood-Peewee
Black-billed Magpie
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Warbling Vireo
Plumbeous Vireo
Virginia’s Warbler
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak

And now we head north to the great national parks of Wyoming.  I’ll have no internet coverage during our two weeks inside the national parks so it will be after that, when we stop at a commercial park on our way to Idaho, that I’ll post my next blog.  I’m extremely excited about two weeks inside the national parks and hope to write and capture photos of the experience.

So for now, I’m off for two weeks of birding, hiking and wandering around—and frequently wondering about the complexities of Mother Nature.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Colorado Springs!

To more fully appreciate my DELIGHT with Colorado Springs, you may first want to read my last blog “Heat and Fire”.  
Colorado Springs has been a wonderful, first “base camp” for my long dreamed-of lifestyle that would include “summers NOT in Texas”. This trip represents the rick-man’s and my first plunge into retirement living where “trip” is not defined by one, two or three week vacations from work.  Travel IS the lifestyle.
Although past vacations have focused on state and national park visits, this summer-long trip will include visits to "must see" cities and towns, which usually means camping in commercial RV parks.  We have stayed these last four nights in a commercial RV park that is a five minute drive to Garden of the Gods, five minutes to Manitou Springs historic area, and 10 minutes to downtown Colorado Springs.  The park is at the beginning of a bike trail that goes to Manitou Springs (or on to Pikes Peak for the biking phenom—and there are many in this area, young and old).
Commercial RV parks are never as lovely as state and national parks, but we were thankful for this one’s shady site and great location:

 Much of this stay we’ve spent exploring the free, city-owned park, “Garden of the Gods”.  It has a fascinating history in becoming a city park, and is another great example of human’s capacity to both recklessly misuse, and then passionately preserve, the natural wonders of this world.  The reddish limestone formations that make up “the central garden” and the wondrous backdrop of Pike’s Peak and the Rockies are not aptly caught by any photo, including this one at the Garden of the God’s Visitor Center:

But this view does emphasize the great hiking trails, as we hiked from the Visitor’s Center to the central garden and beyond.  It took the rick-man and me a good twenty-four hours to adjust to the altitude before attempting half-day and longer hikes.  And it took me a couple of days to fully recover from the “Heat and Fire” experience.  But even a first day spent on the main tourist trail within “the central garden” offered beautiful looks at rock formations that would delight geologists, and challenge enthusiastic rock climbers:

And even though we hiked many of the forested and more rugged trails, it was walking through the central gardens that brought me two new birding lifers:  the Prairie Falcon and the Black-capped Chickadee.  I got long looks at both.  The Prairie Falcons were nesting in the park and we watched parents and offspring from both flight and perched positions.  This beautiful falcon looks like a large, husky, grey version of an American Kestrel, common to Gulf Coast winter birders.  You’ll find the two species of falcon side-by-side in books such as Sibley’s.  But the only chance of spotting a Prairie Falcon in Texas would be far west Texas, and only during winter.  Falco mexicanus is a western U.S. and Mexican year-round resident, venturing into far west Texas in the winter months.  Most range maps for Avians are “north” and “south” oriented, with a bird’s range further south in winter, and more north during the summer.  But interestingly enough, the Prairie Falcon’s range moves further east during the winter.  An ornithologist could tell me why.  I just wonder about it.
The Black-capped Chickadee was a sought-after miss from our Arizona and Wyoming trips of past years.  Our first day in the Garden of the Gods (GotGs) brought us the Mountain Chickadee, also seen on our former Arizona and Wyoming trips.  It was great to see the Mountain Chickadee again, with its white supercilium (eyebrow) giving it a “tude” quite different from the Carolina Chickadees common to Texas.  After a wonderful hike on the forested, loop trail of (GotGs) we headed back to the central garden to relax and ponder the beauty of the rock formations, and a chickadee flew past, right in front of me.  I could assume it was a Mountain, but my birding mentor (E.M.) taught me to take nothing for granted, no matter how tired from a hike. So I gave chase, and to my delight, was rewarded with long looks at the Black-capped. The Black-capped Chickadee is not a Texas resident, nor migrant, any time of the year.
My favorite hike was the multi-mile, wooded loop-trail around the park:

But the tourist sites such as "Balanced Rock" were great fun:

When not hiking and birding The Garden of the Gods, we enjoyed playing tourist about town.  This visit held too little time to truly explore this fascinating city.  But we did get out and about enough to enjoy our folding bikes (see my blog “Folding Does Matter”) and to tour the Manitou Springs area.  We also got out and about enough to clearly note one common theme of Colorado Springs residents—they are fit!  And I don’t just mean the young college students or Academy cadets.  I saw multiple women and men in their 60’s and beyond that looked ready for the next Olympics.  This town is filled with hiking, biking and other types of recreational endeavors.  And the residents enthusiastically use them. 
This hike and bike trail connected our RV park to the shops and historic area of Manitou:

Walking around the shopping district reminded me of Fredericksburg, Texas, with some serious mountains for backdrop:

These last few days have given me great appreciation for this unique city.  Now I am excited to head out to one of Colorado’s state parks for a multi-day visit, removed from city hustle and bustle.  The state park will preclude internet access and blog posting, but I do plan to write when not hiking and birding.  I’ll hopefully publish a next post (probably Friday) that captures our visit.
For now, I’m just out wandering…

Friday, June 17, 2011

Heat and Fire (and a Walmart Parking Lot)

Stating the obvious, it is hot in Texas--and dry.  The extreme drought conditions are visible across the state, endangering habitat, and the livelihood of those that live off the land.  For the rest of us, the three digit temperatures are simply miserable.  As a good friend of mine says, there are two ways to find cooler temperatures—go north, or go up; in elevation, that is.  
And so the rick-man and I headed north, ready to get out of the Texas heat, and excited to begin a long dreamed-of road trip to the great northwest.  We would seek cooler summer temperatures, great hikes, and new species of birds within our binocular view.  (And I have some self-imposed botany challenges in mind, per former blogs.)
But first we needed to drive out of Texas.  That would mean pulling the Airstream for two long days, through hot, dry conditions, hoping our tow vehicle would handle the 10,000 pounds of trailer, air conditioner, and three digit ambient temperatures. 
With Colorado our first goal, we pointed ourselves toward the Raton Pass of northeastern New Mexico.  This pass is the favored route, by many a Texan, destined toward Colorado summer vacations. We’ve tried the Oklahoma and Kansas route in past years, and my saying that the Oklahoma roads are bumpy is a polite understatement.  So the northwest Raton passage was our goal, and off we headed toward Ft. Worth, Wichita Falls and Amarillo.   As we left the Upper Gulf Coast, driving through central Texas, we watched the temperatures climb.  With a first day’s planned stop at a roadside RV park just south Ft. Worth, we soon realized that it would be a miserable night.  Very late afternoon we reached our goal, but the ambient temperature was still above 100.  Stopping was not a reasonable option. 
And so we headed toward Wichita Falls, with a first intentional nighttime drive with Airstream in tow.  Surely the temperatures would drop, and the Airstream’s air conditioner could meet the challenge of cooling off our condo on wheels.  (For those readers that are not RVers, expecting an RV’s air conditioner to drop the temperature 20+ degrees, from an extremely hot starting point, is asking for a miracle.)
Without going into detail, let’s just say that a communication failure between the female driver, the male passenger (with phone) and the RV park attendee (recipient of phone call) caused us to arrive in Wichita Falls after 11:00 p.m. without clear directions to the RV park.  

I drove around Witchita Falls for 30 minutes. (in rain and lightning!) No attendee was going to answer the phone at 11:00 p.m. and the website’s map, visible on the tiny screen of a smart phone, was, at best, missing critical details.  

And so the first night’s adventure began when I stopped at a Walmart parking lot, somewhere around midnight, and sat in the Airstream with no air conditioning, no lights, and no water.  The temperature was close to 90 degrees inside the trailer, with windows open.  And those that know the rick-man and me are aware that we were already operating under serious fault scenario conditions by arriving anywhere at midnight, much less a Walmart parking lot. 
The rick-man has an amazing skill that I have never come close to acquiring:  instant sleep.  As he slept, I sat and listened to the sounds of the Walmart parking lot:  our parking lot neighbors, the 18-wheelers, stopped for the night with diesel generators “humming” to provide the driver a cool cab bed for the night; the comings-and-goings of middle of the night shoppers, mostly young twenty-somethings with a surprising number of children in tow.  

And at four a.m. EXACTLY, the sound of ALL the shopping carts gathered from the parking lot by a diligent young Walmart employee.  You know the sound of shopping carts crashing into each other as they are mated into a long snake-like chain.  I looked out the Airstream’s front window and watched the Walmart employee create long snakes of shopping carts, listening to the crash of metal on metal, with each additional cart’s mating.  

Sometime after, I drifted into sleep, until 5:30 a.m. when the 18-wheeler neighbors began to exit the neighborhood.  I woke up the rick-man, and day two began.  I expected a long day of exhaustion, but I knew that our destination would be an RV park, with cool temperatures, at the top of the Raton Pass.  And so my cup was half full, and loaded with caffeine to keep me awake.  And let me remember to say a huge thanks to Walmart and their parking lot “camping” policy—it served as a night’s safe haven, if not a haven of comfort.  It felt good to get back into the air conditioning of our tow vehicle, and continue heading northwest, wearing the same clothes of the day before. 
We made it through Amarillo by 10 a.m. and I was feeling good about crossing the border into New Mexico, at Texline, before the temperature hit 100.  It seemed we were caravanning with a steady stream of RV and other traffic through the few small towns on the somewhat remote Highway 87, all headed for Raton.  

On the New Mexico side, major roadwork was the current dilemma, and I was feeling the aftermath of the Walmart slumber party.  Fresh asphalt was being laid on the west bound side, and frequent halts were occurring as both directions of traffic shared paths, orchestrated by the familiar site of two men with walky-talkies and signs that either said “Slow” or “Stop”, depending on the eastbound or westbound traffic’s turn.  We were about 25 miles east of Raton and about 35 miles from the pass and our RV destination.  Good things would soon happen. 
Suddenly we saw a flashing billboard traffic sign, the temporary kind of sign on wheels that sometimes will alert you to your speed.  But this sign was flashing a cryptic warning that Raton Pass and I-25 north were closed, due to a fire.

CLOSED!  This can’t be right; I’d been watching the news all week and the fires were on the Arizona and New Mexico border, not the northeast corner of Raton!  I thought I was having a sleep deprived hallucination.   

Along with other RVers and confused drivers, I pulled off the road.  I sought information from road workers, inhaling the fresh asphalt that burned my nose, and wondering at their daily work habitat.  I was trying to convince myself that an entire Interstate highway could not be closed due to fire, especially since no signs of warning had been posted at earlier locations.  

I was wrong.  The signs were correct.  I had three choices:  turn back to Texas and the 104 degree afternoon heat, go to Raton and drive south, or take a back road detour a hundred feet ahead.  

A local was providing advice:  the detour would take at least 3 hours on roads that were extremely bumpy and not designed for RV or 18-wheeler traffic; the detour would include 60 miles of Colorado’s Highway 160, a difficult drive into Trinidad, Colorado where no RV parks were to be found.
My long day just became extended, under extremely difficult driving conditions.  And so I thought of the Walmart shopping carts as we became a part of the 18-wheeler and RV traffic that snaked through the bumpy, winding back roads of New Mexico.  I just hoped to NOT hear metal clanking against metal as driver patience was taxed by all.
Around 5:00 p.m. we arrived at an RV park, close to Colorado City, less than 100 miles of our next day’s goal of Colorado Springs.  I'd been on the road and behind the wheel for eleven difficult hours after my hour and a half of sleep at Walmart, with the smell of smoke accompanying us for most of the detour’s three hours. 
The Raton Pass fire’s smoke was visible many miles into Colorado: 

Commercial RV parks are not my favored destination, but this Colorado City KOA park seemed an Eden to me:  shade trees, shower, and relief from the road and heat. 

I slept hard, lulled to sleep by the Airstream's open windows providing a cool breeze and the sounds of unfamiliar bird calls.  Sometime during the night I pulled a blanket over me, as I got cold.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Seeing Green

Somewhere around a quarter century ago I was experiencing the coquettish advances of a pop culture “Psychology Today” fan.  I was challenged to produce a pencil drawing, with little thought and little time, of an imaginary landscape that included a tree, a river, bridge, bench, and a few other specific items, not to mention a self-portrait, placed in the scene.  I was given no further direction; no explanation of intent.  With no artistic talent, but with some interest in the advance, I accepted the challenge, paper and pencil.  In short order I produced a pre-school quality landscape, with required items “stuck into” the scene, similar to children’s artwork hanging from refrigerator magnets across the U.S., if not the world. 
The imaginary “en plein air” scene was supposed to reveal the secrets of my psyche, if not the mysteries of my soul.  I thought it revealed the side of my brain that would NOT be the source of my financial livelihood.  I don’t remember the details of the dinner date’s psychoanalysis, but the tree, the river, the bridge, and the location of my stick-figure were purported to be an iconic image of my personality.  Was I on the same side of the river as the tree, or did I need to cross the bridge?  Was the river calm or turbulent? 
As I listened to this “in depth” review of my art work, I silently gave thanks that the prolific analysis relieved me from dinner-date small talk. The tool of socially acceptable small talk was, and is, mostly missing from my tool belt.  At the same time, the enchanting style of the analyst told me much about my dinner partner’s personality.  We would not get to the soul mysteries that would be my preferred dinner conversation; but such discussions of the non-physical world are a known “shall not” on first social engagements, so I couldn’t complain. 
But what I most remember of the evening’s analysis was the conversation that addressed my artistic depiction of a tree, or trees, as was the case.  The “style” of my tree was supposed to reveal how much water was in my glass, and whether I thought of my glass as half-full or half-empty.  The more leaves on the tree, the more positive my outlook; the more vibrant the pencil shading for the leaves, the more vibrant my personality.
The sketch I drew included trees somewhat similar in style (and artistic talent) to the following, which pretty much speaks for itself:

Social etiquette dictated that the analyst was not too harsh on my barren tree limbs.  But my extraverted dinner companion was quite clear:  my tree was not in a happy place.  No leaves.  Not even an attempted pencil shading of a leaf-filled tree.  With mock concern I was enlightened that my tree revealed a life outlook and personality that was NOT singing a freshly-green springtime jubilee. 
The basis for this artistic analysis was as fictional as the conclusion reached.  And, in fact, I was in a “good place” at this time of my life.  But in retrospect, all these years later, I look at the picture of my tree and see a perfect fit for my psyche.  It has nothing to do with emotional health (or lack thereof); it has nothing to do with positive outlook or even personality type. 
Quite simply, it has to do with the fact that I am a birder, and a lazy one at that.  Let me explain: 
By calendar standards, it is now late spring.  By Texas standards and this year’s record breaking heat, we are in the throes of a long summer.  But I still bird every chance I get.  I recently spent a day out hiking one of my favorite wintertime trails:  good woods, a creek that feeds a nearby river, and not much in the way of human noise.  I was startled by what had happened to a favored winter day’s hike:  my birding hotspot had turned into a sea of green; a swamp of green; a blanket of green.  I was seeing green. 

I was hearing birds.  Lots of birds.  And amid the chatter, the delightful call of White-eyed Vireos. I would move ever so slowly and silently.  I’d stop; stand still with hands on binoculars, waiting to catch any movement that belonged to the bird calls.  Leaves waved at me.  They teased me.  Twenty minutes I stood and listened.  I saw green.

OK, I told myself, this is about patience.  My non-birder friends would delight over the beauty of the leaf-filled wood.  I moved ahead 30 yards.  I listened to the delightful song of the White-eyed Vireos.  They were abundant.  I lifted binoculars and scanned the green ocean.  Surely I’ll catch movement; they are right over my head!  They are beside me.  They are behind me.  They are hiding from me without even trying.  The leaves’ details waved at me through my binoculars’ viewing field; I was seeing green, magnified.  I walked, I stopped, I listened.  I saw green.   Save one gregarious Red-bellied Woodpecker, and one Hermit Thrush that stood out against the green backdrop, it was a day of hearing, not seeing.  Birds, that is.  A botanist would have been delighted.

And so I long for late fall and winter, where leafless trees and barren branches support the lazy birder’s sport of winter birding.  I love a winter tree, daring to reveal what it hides each summer.   
I will bird this summer with a cup half full.  But I’ll bird much more in the winter time, when birds can fly, but they can’t so easily hide.
And yes there are some species I will only “get” on my life list in summertime’s heavily leafed woods and thickets.  And I will go and search and listen.  But mostly I will see green and long for the coming winter. 
In the midst of winter, I find within myself, a passionate birder.