November 16, 2010

Summer Recollections - Part 4

Dusky Grouse Extravaganza!

June 23, 2010 – Day 8 of Neil’s Visit

We stood, standing on a dusty dirt road in Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, gaping at a hole in a nearby Aspen trunk, cameras at the ready. A chattering House Wren, which we were avidly ignoring, was scolding us from a bush at the base of the tree, before it swiftly entered another hole in the same tree, though smaller and closer to the ground than the opening we were intent upon. Suddenly, “There it is!” Begging calls of fledgling Red-naped Sapsuckers sounded from the hole we were gazing at, as a blur of woodpecker swooped into the hole. The adult had only remained on the outside, in our view, only long enough for us to bring the viewfinder to our eyes. “Get any photos?” I ask. “No,” Neil replies. With some time and patience, we did manage to get a few photos. Eventually we continued walking down the road. At a trailhead sign for “Cub Lake,” we turned onto the rocky, uneven, and heavily traveled trail.

Male Red-naped Sapsucker

Part way up the trail, we encountered a couple of birders. We started talking, and it turned out that one of them, Chris, was doing a Big Year! (His blog recording his Big Year can be found at: As we were chatting, Joel suddenly called out from behind us, “Goshawk!” Sure enough, an adult was circling above a distant ridge, just a speck on the pine-shrouded horizon. This species was one of our (Joel and Marcel’s) “nemesis” birds (and as such was a lifer). Everybody else was super excited to see it too, as it was even a new year bird for Chris, the big year lister! A little farther up the trail, we heard a Dusky Flycatcher, a common bird but another year bird for Chris. As we started the final ascent to the lake, a large bird erupted from a bush on the side of the trail. “DUSKY GROUSE!!!” After relocating it at the edge of a meadow, we stayed and photographed it for over an hour. This adult male was “booming” with its built in “sub-woofer,” calling to any nearby female, and warning possible rivals. This was the bird we hoped to find on this particular trail. It was a life bird for Neil and yet another year bird for Chris. At this point, hunger turned Chris and his wife around, while we continued on to Cub Lake.

Northern Goshawk

Male Dusky Grouse

Male Dusky Grouse

Male Dusky Grouse

Male Dusky Grouse

Finally, the lily-encircled and leech-filled lake came into view, along with a multitude of patrolling dragonflies. After a thorough survey of the pond side, we managed to identify American Emerald, Belted Whiteface, Four-spotted Skimmer, Darner sp., and lots of Northern/Boreal Bluets (near impossible to identify without the benefit of magnification). While we were eating lunch, a completely habituated pair of Mallards and a Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrel boldly begged for scraps. They obviously have a lot of success at this location.

Cub Lake

American Emerald

We continued on towards “The Pool,” an alternate route back to the parking lot. When we were nearly back to the parking lot, we suddenly heard a quiet clucking noise from the side of the trail. We spied a brownish chicken head protruding from the nearby grass. “Look! A female grouse!” we excitedly whispered to each other. After watching it for a while, it slowly crossed the trail, followed by a half dozen Dusky Grouse chicks, each no more than a few days old. We had just gotten the full slam-dunk of Dusky Grouse . . . male, female, and chicks.

Female Dusky Grouse

Dusky Grouse Chick

November 15, 2010

Summer Recollections - Part 3

"The Coolest Bird"

June 21, 2010 – Day 6 of Neil’s Visit

Crisp mountain air greeted our slightly sluggish bodies as we stepped out of our Subaru Outback, grabbed our daypacks, and started up the Wild Basin Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our goal was Ouzel Falls with the object of finding “The Coolest Bird,” as Black Swift fanatic Richard Levad coined it. Ouzel Falls is a known nesting colony for this waterfall dwelling wraith of darkness, which was one of the highest species on Neil’s “need-to-see” list. Here, you just might spot a dark bullet shooting out of the waterfall at dawn, or vice versa at dusk. During mid-day it is also possible to discern the "stiff-winged stunt-plane" from among the massive flocks of smaller Violet-green Swallows, which nest in the nearby Aspen groves. The thing is, these flocks of swallows are a good thousand feet up, looking no bigger than ants. But, this was what we were hoping for, as we were getting a late start on the trail and were destined to get to the waterfall at least an hour or two after the sun had already cleared the mountainous horizon.

Ouzel Falls

When we reached the falls, where Ouzel Creek tumbles fifty feet down a sheer granite rock face, we sat down for an early lunch (about three hours early) just outside of the waterfall's spray zone. Just as we were about to get up and snoop around by the creek, Neil suddenly cried out “Swift!” Lo and behold, a dark shadow had just parted from the rock face next to the waterfall and had come hurtling past us at eye level, close enough that we could see the faint silvery marks on its face and neck. The funny thing is, at 9:30 AM, the swifts were supposed to be out hunting for the flying insects that make up their diet, not still by their nest! Still heartily congratulating ourselves on this unexpected find, we proceeded with our previous plan of snooping around the waterfall.

Fairyslipper AKA Calypso Orchid

Yellow-bellied Marmot

Curiosity fulfilled, we set back off up the trail to another trail that loops back to the parking lot. But, before we had hiked more than fifteen minutes, we heard a gentle tap tap tap, barely noticeable above the ruckus of Steller’s Jays and Yellow-bellied Marmots. Instantly recognizing the subtle “call,” we began to search through the dead Lodgepole Pines along the trail. Almost in another instant, Joel had located it slowly working its way up and around the beetle-killed trunk, a small, charcoal-black woodpecker with a barred white back and belly and a small yellow patch on top of the head . . . a male American Three-toed Woodpecker! We had found one previously on another hike, but the view was less than satisfactory, with only a couple brief glimpses and the bird deeply shrouded in shadow. But now, it was right there, only twenty feet away and almost completely exposed! Cameras snapping, we continued to watch it until it flew farther down into the surrounding pines.

American Three-toed Woodpecker

American Three-toed Woodpecker

Western Pine Elfin


Mud Lake Open Space, Boulder County

On the way home the this eventful hike, we stopped at a small Boulder County open space area called Mud Lake to feed another obsession of ours, dragonflies. We had never been to this particular location before, but the name seemed promising. As we pulled the car into one of the many open spaces in the parking lot – there was only one other vehicle – an old rusted bus missing all of its tires and window glass, a reminder of the Boulder Hippie days. On a ledge inside the bus, however, we found an active Cordilleran Flycatcher nest with two eggs.

Riding the Hippie Bus

At the lake, which was fairly small and completely edged with reeds and a cattail marsh, our hopes were realized . . . dragonflies and damselflies of all sorts were patrolling the shores. Among the most obvious were Twelve-spotted Skimmers, Four-spotted Skimmers, and Variegated Meadowhawks. Among the damselflies we found were some Bluet sp., and a female Lyre-tipped Spreadwing, which was only the second spreadwing of any type that Neil had ever seen.

Male Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Male Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Male Four-spotted Skimmer

Neil Photographing the Lyre-tipped Spreadwing

Female Lyre-tipped Spreadwing

November 7, 2010

Summer Recollections - Part 2

Tundra Chickens

June 20, 2010 – Day 5 of Neil Gilbert’s Visit

The Never Summer Mountain Range

Above tree line in Rocky Mountain National Park, we walked stealthily along, as well as one could, at least, with five layers of thermal clothing on. The sun was just peeking over the jagged snow-capped peaks around us. We tried our best not to slip on the ice covered trail edged with tiny, delicate alpine flowers and mosses. So far no luck on our goal, however . . . just the pleasant songs of the common local breeders – Horned Larks, American Pipits, and Mountain White-crowned Sparrows. We were looking for another breeder, a larger but less obvious one.

Neil Searching Through the Krumholtz

Circling back through the krumholtz habitat – stunted and scattered juniper bushes just above treeline – we searched every nook and cranny. Just as we were about to give up, however, a sudden flurry of wing beats and a loud clucking screech. A blur of brown with white wings exploded out from underneath a nearby bush. We eagerly ran up the hillside as fast as the thin air would allow, carefully jumping from one rock to the next to preserve the delicate alpine flora. Finally, with much huffing and puffing, we found it again . . . a small brown chicken with mottled white in the feathers and a pure white tail – a White-tailed Ptarmigan, our target bird and a life bird for Neil.


We slowly crept up a bit, with cameras at the ready. One thing we've found with ptarmigan is that they seem more or less fearless, or oblivious, and seem to go about their business with an audience quietly watching them. On our way back out, we flushed yet another ptarmigan! This individual joined a small group of birds, which were all chasing each other over the alpine tundra, completely oblivious to our presence. Our final tally of ptarmigan was four.