Sunday, September 23, 2012

Colorado Bird List

After 19 days in Colorado my list of bird sightings would fall into the paltry category to most serious birders.  But I am quite happy with it because each sighting represents a bird that I stopped and watched—usually while hiking a beautiful trail. 

I do not like to chase after and glance at birds to create a long list of personal sightings.  I like to stop and watch the seasonally common birds of a given habitat as they go about their lives, doing what comes naturally to them.  Long looks to observe behavior, while listening to their different calls, alerts and songs, is always great fun. 

I mainly hiked, with binoculars around my neck, leaving the 400 mm lens in its case.  I have no great bird photos to share.  I did take one last walk with the 400mm, just before packing up to head south for New Mexico, and have included a couple of photos.

Whether a beginning birder or a seasoned birder, I encourage keeping a list of sightings when visiting a new region or state.  I documented, but am not including in this list, the very common species sighted such as Vultures, Rock Doves and House Sparrows.

My Colorado bird list of interesting sightings, September 2012 with an (*) representing new species to my life list:

Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Wild Turkey
Mourning Dove
White-throated Swift
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Olive-sided Flycatcher* (Lookout Mountain, Golden area)
Dusky Flycatcher* (Lookout Mountain, Golden area)
Steller’s Jay
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Rock Wren
House Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Western Bluebird
American Robin
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler* (Golden Gate Canyon SP and Cheyenne Mtn SP)
Chipping Sparrow
Brewer’s Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch

And two BVDs (better views desired) that I would love to include but am not:

Mountain Bluebird
Townsend’s Solitaire

The Red-shafted Northern Flicker was very common at Cheyenne Mountain:


The Spotted Towhee was also very common at Cheyenne Mountain:


Next stop, Northern New Mexico!  May all your days be birdy days…

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Twelve Days of Cheyenne Mountain State Park

I could share with you the daily adventures of spending twelve wonderful days at Cheyenne Mountain State Park.  But soon my words would sound like a diary to envy:  day trips into Colorado Springs to shop, tourist, and visit local restaurants.  I don’t want to diary this stay, and I’ve already blogged about the day trip to visit Garden of the Gods (Grief in the Garden).  But I will confess that this park is only a ten minute drive to an I-Hop and a Red Robin. 
And so one morning’s outdoor adventures were delayed until after my favorite breakfast cravings were satisfied:  pancakes (and always request hot syrup), two poached eggs and two pieces of bacon.  Another day’s glorious seven mile hike was followed by RR’s excellent hamburger, fries and perfect coleslaw.  This was my first visit to a Red Robin and I don’t know if I’ve been missing out on a great hamburger chain or if a seven mile hike turns an ordinary hamburger into something extraordinary.  But it was perfectly delicious!
I could share that the twelve days brought two days of rainy, cold weather--which was heavenly.  Each rainy day found me making a crock-pot stew and generally lying around and listening to the musical sound of rain on the Airstream’s aluminum roof.  The chicken, vegetables and rice stew was my favorite; the sausage, three-bean and rice stew was the rick-man’s favorite.  Of course both stews were loaded with tomatoes.
This campsite photo from a rainy day:

  But a twelve day stay at Cheyenne Mountain State Park is all about hiking its twenty miles of fantastic trails.  And as a side note, the park is developing a new trail that will hopefully climb to the top of the mountain.  (That trail-head will begin four miles in on the Talon North trail.)  I would imagine that there were some interesting meetings between agency personnel for Colorado state parks, federal bureau of land management and NORAD regarding this new trail and its encroachment on “The Mountain”.  I’d like to think that Star Gate personnel were also involved.
The twenty miles of trails at Cheyenne Mountain cover what I’d over simplify as three habitat types:  shadow-of-the mountain prairies, hill-side terrain of Gambel’s Oaks, and mountain-side forests of Ponderosa Pine.
The prairie trails provided great morning and evening viewing of wildlife, including Prairie Dogs, rabbits, deer, Red-tailed Hawks and so on:


The prairie landscape transitions to brush and Gambel’s Oaks as the trail climbs in elevation toward the mountain. Spotted Towhees, Downy Woodpeckers, and Western Scrub-Jays were fun to watch in these dwarf forests:

 But the climb into the mountain-side Ponderosa Pines provided my favorite trails.  The Mountain Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Pygmy Nuthatches were especially friendly:


And the vista views, as the trails climbed in elevation, were especially rewarding:

I will miss this park, campsite and our friendly neighbors that passed through daily: the Wild Turkeys, the rabbits and most especially the young bucks with their proud antlers that tangled with the Gambel’s Oaks.  
Twelve days was just not enough.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grief in the Garden

I was not the only tourist this past Thursday morning exploring Colorado Spring’s most famous Garden of the Gods. I walked the gardens as a happy tourist, taking in the beauty of both the foreground and the background:

I could simply write about the beauty in walking the inner garden, or hiking the outer loop trails, or sitting on the veranda of the Visitor’s Center and taking it all in.  I could emphasize that all this beauty is provided by the host city at no charge to the visitor.  But I would be ignoring the price of walking these grounds if you bring a pondering soul. 
It does not surprise me that the ancients found God in the mountains.  But in these rocks I found a spirit of humanity; a grouping of mortals coming together to share some grief.  I don’t think every person experiences grief.  All of us experience loss at some time in our lives; and all of us have known some level of pain, and hurt and suffering.  But grief seems to require a willingness to embrace a deep pain to the point of owning it.  And when a community comes together to grieve, it can be a holy experience—set apart from the daily routine of lives moving forward.

It was this particular rock formation that captured my thoughts since visiting the god’s garden.  I saw in it a grieving community of seemingly timeless humans, portrayed by Mother Nature in the simplicity of these weathered rocks.  In this rock formation I saw the bowed heads; the prayerful mourning; the leaning of one on another; the gnashing of teeth:

And somehow we humans found a way to turn the meaning of grief on its ear.  Or perhaps we found a way to fully embrace grief with a spirit of lightheartedness; a reminder not to take ourselves or our ponderings too seriously.  We found our release in the simplicity of two unlikely words grouped together and expressed by beloved cartoon characters.  With a simplicity and complexity that speaks volumes:  “Good Grief!

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Table Mountains of Golden: A Wonderful Example of Open Space Parks

For many reasons Golden Colorado has become my favorite city to visit (with regrets to Flagstaff, Arizona).  Golden is probably best known as home to the Coors Brewing Company and the Colorado School of Mines.  It is also the I-70 portal for eastern access to several popular Rocky Mountain destinations.  None of these reasons made my favorite city checklist.  (But I will share that if I were 18 years old and wealthy, I’d definitely be applying to the Colorado School of Mines)

The key reason Golden is my new favorite city to visit is its location within Jefferson County.  Jefferson County has earned serious bragging rights for its “Open Space” program.  This program boasts a series of 28 parks and properties, spread over 52,000 acres, with 210 miles of trails—and many of these trailheads are within the Golden city limits. 

The Open Space program began in 1972 with the vision, energy and support of the good people of Jefferson County.  Voters approved a one-half percent sales tax to preserve open space lands, as well as to maintain the health of natural and cultural resources.  These parks may be considered nationally renowned gems by those in the know, but this Texan was unaware of their existence until arriving and driving around Golden.  (I encourage a look at the Jefferson County website: to learn more about this wonderful Open Space program.  The website provides detailed park and trail guides.  Or if visiting Golden, definitely stop by the Visitor’s Center to pick up a brochure.  The city’s Bird List brochure pointed the rick-man and me to several trailheads.)

Two of the Open Space parks within the Golden city limits are North Table Mountain and South Table Mountain.  Both of these parks can be accessed via parking lots within neighborhoods.  An important note for my family and friends that are dog owners, both of these park’s trail systems allow dogs on leash with the understanding, of course, that “pick up the poop” rules are followed.
Pictures describe better than words, so...

Walking the outer loop trail of South Table Mountain; the Coors plant and ponds are in the background:


Birding South Table Mountain; Rock Wrens were in abundance:

My favorite “city hike” was North Table Mountain.  This photo was taken from the trail that leads to the table “top”.  Note the trusty Suburban parked at the bottom of the photo, in the neighborhood trailhead parking lot: 


Once “up top” you would never know that the city of Golden surrounds this table mountain:

And even with a mid-day hike, the birding was wonderful.  A loose flock of Vesper Sparrows and Brewer’s Sparrows gave great sightings.  Sighting a beautiful Horned Lark was icing on the cake:

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Townsend's Warbler at Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Golden Gate Canyon State Park is a special place—and a wonderful mountain escape just thirty minutes west of Golden, Colorado.  The thirty minute drive is worth the trip.  The beautiful drive is filled with curves and twists and lots of 20mph yellow warning signs.  But the grades are easy and I was wishing for a sports car to make this drive.  But the unhitched Suburban is my dependable and trusted vehicle of choice, and I am thankful for the safe travels it has provided these last six years.
The rick-man and I arrived at Golden Gate Canyon State Park late Friday morning.  The temperature was in the 50’s and stayed in that range throughout the day.  After a summer of three digit temperatures on the Texas Gulf Coast, I had to remember to take and wear layers of clothing.  My light weight vest and lined wind breaker never felt so good.  With day pack, binoculars and walking stick, my 400 mm lens and Canon 7D were not a part of my hiking gear.  I wanted to focus on birding this new territory.  I was greatly rewarded.
Although we explored several trails, the Raccoon trail was my favorite of the day.  At an elevation over 9000 feet, it was a beautiful hike.  The trail seemed straight out of a magical fairy tale with mature Aspen and Spruce trees providing a lovely canopy over the root and rock-filled trail.  I was delighted to watch Golden-crowned Kinglets and Mountain Chickadees spiral up the Spruces. Round and round the trunk they would go, climbing higher, as if they were winding tassels around a Christmas tree.  I was waiting to hear Fantasia music to begin. The Kinglets and Chickadees would fly in so close to me that I could almost reach out and touch them.  A Golden-crowned Kinglet stopped on a branch less than four feet from my head, just at eye level.  We both froze and sized each other up.  It was delicious.  Their golden-crowned head is an amazing piece of art from Mother Nature’s canvas.
But I could hear Elric’s voice in my head:  “if you want to get a really good warbler, look to the canopy tops”; and so I scanned, and scanned and scanned, with my neck complaining from the abuse.
And there it was, gleaning its day’s bread from the top of an Aspen, moving in and out of the quaking leaves and allowing me glimpses of all body parts:  a Townsend’s Warbler.  This beautiful warbler has been on my wish list for a very long time.  If you look at its habitat range in any bird book you’ll understand why it has been a wishful find for this native Texan.  I have studied it and studied it, on opposite page to the Golden-cheeked Warbler (The Native Texan).  But I knew my chances of adding the Townsend’s to my life list would require travel and timing, and a lot of luck.  Friday was my lucky day.
With fall migration occurring in Colorado, I happened to be at the right place at the right time.  My canopy-top scanning was rewarded with multiple sightings of this beautiful warbler.  The rick-man does not attempt top-canopy viewing, so the best I can share of this experience are photos of this happy birder, on beautiful trail, sighting and watching the Townsend’s Warbler:

And after a perfect day at Golden Gate Canyon State Park, I took a back road to return to Golden, partly dirt, to stop at the overlook at White Ranch Park.  The views were stunning:

And a fitting closure to a perfect day was sighting a partial rainbow in the easterly direction, seeming to confirm that Golden does indeed lie at the end of the rainbow:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Lookout Mountain, Golden CO

Today was a first daytrip to hike and bird one of the many beautiful locales outside of the Golden city limits:  Lookout Mountain.  I could research and share the elevation of today’s destination, but mountain-loving folk would not be impressed.  I could look up the distance of the winding roads to reach the Lookout Mountain Nature Center (19th street, Lariat Road and Lookout Mountain Road).  I could go into great detail about the number of switchbacks, the drop-offs on the edge of the road, and the percent grade of the "turn around" steep switchbacks, but mountain-loving folk would probably still not be impressed.  But for this Gulf Coastie, I spent a lot of time NOT "looking out" as I carefully navigated the blacktop roads to the top of Lookout Mountain.  I mostly stared at the yellow stripe in the middle of the two-way road and kept telling myself how much I would have enjoyed walking the winding ascent.
And so even though most of us have politely said “nice pictures” when friends or relatives share vacation “landscapes” that leave the Grand Canyon looking flat, or make a mountain peak look small, I still choose to proudly share these two photos.  These two photos are this Gulf Coastie's bragging rights, not for my landscape photography skills, but to share that I DROVE the trusty Suburban to these two points:

And I’d be “w”reckless to not mention the lovely grounds and trails of the Lookout Mountain Nature Center.  The Forest Trail, less than a mile in length, shared all three of the western nuthatches:  the Read-breasted, the White-breasted and the Pygmy.  They are wonderfully fun to watch.

But I’ll remember Lookout Mountain for sharing two flycatchers that have eluded me on former trips:  the Olive-sided and the Dusky.  I got long looks at both; the Olive-sided in an area of mature Ponderosa Pines, and the Dusky in an area more open, with bushes and small trees spread between larger trees.
But in celebration of Debbie B.’s birthday, I only post pictures of scenery.  Happy birthday, Deb—you would have gotten a good laugh at watching the rick-man and me during today’s great ascent!  J

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Northwest Passage

It is September—the long awaited month to begin our fall trip to travel parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California.  This trip is about a lifestyle of travel in the beloved condo-on-wheels, with no specific schedule of dates for arrivals (or departures) as we travel from place to place.  This trip is about visiting a long list of amazing locales and habitats, with lengths of stay influenced by good weather and our growing list of interesting stops.  This trip is about exploring cities and countryside; about visits to touristy towns and remote hot spots for birding.  This trip will surprise me. 

I plan to regularly blog about this journey that has been a half-century in the making (and post when wi-fi enabled). 

But the beginning is the challenge.  How to pull the condo-on-wheels from a starting point on the upper gulf coast of Texas and reach the furthest northern point of this travel plan:  the Denver, Colorado area.  The answer is simple:  drive long hours in triple digit heat, watching transmission and engine temperatures, and not stopping until the sun is setting each day, giving a fair chance for a hot Airstream to cool down with its trusty air conditioner. 

And so the rick-man and I began this intended leisurely multi-month trip doing what we do not like:  traveling twelve hour days on the road.  But this trip’s northwest passage caused us no problems.  There were no nights spent in a Walmart parking lot; there were no sudden re-routes due to a fire at Raton Pass; and there were no nasty challenges due to last summer’s loss of trailer brakes in Wyoming.  This trip’s beginning challenge—traversing the big state of Texas (in sustained summer heat) was simply as good as it gets.  And I am thankful.

A first day’s stop at a Walmart, conveniently located on I-35, allowed us to stock the condo-on-wheels with food and supplies:

By the time we reached northwest Texas we were driving in triple digit temperatures.  The roads were good and the winds were calm.  The Suburban’s transmission temperature stayed below 200 degrees except for a short period of time during the worst of the heat and the extended steady climb into the high plains around Amarillo:

This tired driver was thrilled to safely reach Colorado and stop at a first rest stop on I-25. An even eighty-degree temperature with low humidity never felt so good:

Much of our travel finds us camped in state or federal parks, but occasionally a commercial park serves as the best port for visiting city locales.  This Denver-area commercial park lacks all aspects of remote camping, but provides a surprisingly quiet and convenient home base for this week’s visit to a major metropolis and its many sightseeing opportunities.  Can you find the beloved condo-on-wheels amongst all these big rigs?

And so today was the rick-man’s and my first day in the Denver area, driving about with the Suburban’s windows down and enjoying Mother Nature’s air conditioning.  I found myself thrilling over the sports car-like handling of the Suburban, a lively drive unhitched from the condo-on-wheels. 
We played tourist today, walking the quaint streets of downtown Golden and eating lunch at a wonderful little restaurant called the “Windy Saddle CafĂ©”. But mostly we relaxed and puttered about the Airstream, recovering from two hard days of driving and allowing time to acclimate to the mile-high altitude and low humidity.  It was great fun visiting downtown Golden:

But the best treat, these first twenty-four hours at locale #1, was getting up in the middle of last night to get a heavier blanket. I was cold. 

And it feels good to say, I’m looking forward to tomorrow.