Sunday, June 29, 2014

June 27 and 28 (Days 178 and 179) - More high elevation bird hunts, New friends, Old friends

OK, thanks to Sonia for embarrassing me with the conch story in her post from yesterday. Payback is coming.......

These last two days were my one remaining shot at two, much sought, high elevation species, White-tailed ptarmigan and Brown-capped rosy-finch. I have been unsuccessfully chasing them for the past week or so. After this attempt, I would be dropping to lower elevations where these species are not found. Several people had recommended that I try Guanella Pass for both of these birds. It was generally along my route, but would require a very steep and hard climb to reach the best habitat. Luckily, I was contacted by Denver birder and fellow Stanford alum Chris Rurik. He offered to meet me up at Guanella Campground just below the pass. He would bring a tent and a sleeping bag for me. This would give me two days of birding at Guanella! Perfect! 

There was very strong wind in the early morning yesterday (the 27th), so I did not start the climb from Georgetown to Guanella until 10am or so. This climb was very steep and took about 2 hours with all my stuff. I reached the campground, secured a spot, and ditched most of my stuff in the bushes. I actually started talking to a very nice couple, Pat and Ron, while I was getting the campsite squared away. They seemed really interested in my story, so they decided to cook me lunch in their camper to keep me talking for a few hours. We hung out for a solid 1.5 hours. This was very welcomed conversation and helped to recharge my batteries from the climb.

Pat, Ron, steak and cheese, and the five pound bag
of M+Ms that was a four pound bag after I left.

After lunch and rest, I headed up to the actually pass another 2 miles and 800 feet above the campground. The main attraction at the pass is Mt Bierstadt, one of Colorado's 53 14,000' peaks. As yesterday was a Friday, things were fairly quiet at the pass. I decided to skip the main trail that ran east up to Mt. Bierstadt and instead wandered off towards what looked like productive habitat to the west. I hunted around for about 1.5 hours without seeing much. I then heard this big thud in some bushes to the left of the trail. I thought it might be a bear, so I looked around to make sure I wasn't about to become lunch. I did not see anything, so I turned to continue along the trail when BANG!!! A White-tailed ptarmigan was standing in the trail not 6 frickin' feet from me (#487)! I almost lost control of myself. I immediately reached for the camera. I was so excited that I did not remember to remove my sunglasses, and as a result I smashed them against my face them with the camera as I raised it to my eye. The frames cracked and one lens fell onto the ground. Despite this nonsense, the bird did not move, and I was able to collect myself enough to get a few decent shots. The bird did not seem too concerned with me, and over the course of the next 1.5 hours, I followed him around at point-blank range. This single encounter made carrying the camera the last 3 weeks totally worth it! Chances are I will never see this bird this well again! I was able to show the bird to another hiker, Nadja, who was visiting Colorado from France/Germany. I think she likes how obsessed I was with the ptarmigan.





Nadja and me

Finding this bird was probably that highlight of the year so far. The Black-throated blue warbler that I found in Texas was probably the single most exciting birding moment of the trip, but the fact this this guy was so cooperative when it came to photos really put this over the top. You all know how hard I looked for this bird, so it was incredibly satisfying to finally find it with great effort yesterday! The Black-throated blue warbler story is a really good one. For those that missed it in April, you can find it here. For those that did not understand Sonia's "owl sanctuary" remark from yesterday, this should help clarify things (read to the end).

After this incredible find, I dropped back down to the campsite to find that Chris had already set up the tent and was busy preparing dinner. We had a really nice evening getting acquainted. It was fun to hear that he also played ultimate frisbee at Stanford! We hit the hay relatively early. There were massive thunderstorms all night. We lost quit a bit of sleep to nearby thunder and lightning, but awoke energetic enough to head back up to the pass where we would take a hike to take one last stab at finding Brown-capped rosy-finch. 

We decided to try an area north an west of Mt Bierstadt, but a large gully that would have been unsafe for us to cross thwarted this plan. We instead decided to hike up Mt. Bierstadt proper. As today was a Saturday, the trail was incredibly busy. At least 500 people had decided to climb Mt. Bierstadt today, so this essentially crushed any hope of finding another ptarmigan along this trail. There were about 1.5 inches of fresh snow on the trail, and this made the going a bit slippery. We slowly picked our way up the mountain. My focus had actually shifted away from birding and toward my own safety; I did not want to slip and end my year. I could tell that Chris really wanted to make the summit. This actually helped propel me up a hike that I might have truncated had I been there alone. Having other folks along really helps sometimes. 

As we approached the top, Chris peaked over a snow drift and down the steep south face of the mountain. "Dorian, come over here" he said rather calmly. I peered over the edge to see 2 rosy-finches bouncing around on the rocks 50' below us (#488). Suddenly, the birds flew right up to the ridge line and landed on some rocks 25 feet from us. I quickly scrambled around and peeled off a few frames before the birds lifted off, were joined by two others in flight (4 total), and headed off to the east not to be seen again. We had a total of about 45 seconds of viewing, but man, did we make them count! We continued up the the summit where a young woman was kind enough to lend us her sign for our photo. We had found the birds only 50' below the summit. This meant that we had to make it to 14,000' to tick this bird. It was actually a life bird for Chris. This is really funny since he was so calm when he called me over. I would have been yelling excitedly and smashing sunglasses into my face! He's got a good poker face, so watch out for him if you meet him at the tables......

Brown-capped rosy-finch #488!
So glad I lugged the camera up the mountain. 

Celebrating the summit and the rosy-finch!
Note: Chris made the entire hike in 
Converse Chuck Taylors!

Looking east from Guanella Pass.
Mt Bierstadt (14,060') is right of center.
Photo taken looking east on afternoon of 27th 
with sun behind me to the west.

The plan for the afternoon was to say goodbye to Chris after the hike and to decend to the town of Idaho Springs to meet up with my 2 best friends from high school, James and Kevin. They both live in the greater Denver area. They had planned to climb another nearby 14,000 peak, Mt. Gray, and then meet me at 5pm in Idaho Springs for an early dinner. Somehow they got lost driving to Mt. Gray and ended up at Guanella Pass instead. The decided that Mt. Bierstadt would serve as a viable substitute. Chris and I ran into James and Kevin on the decent. It was a hilarious and fortuitous meeting! We all hiked down together, Chris took off, and the remaining 3 of us headed into Georgetown where we spent several hours reminiscing about our teenage years and how far we have come since then. Both Jamie and Kevin are now parents. Me? Not so much. I will extract photo from them in the next few days. My phone was long since dead at this stage. In the late afternoon, I rode the another 30 miles or so to reach Genesee/Golden.

42 miles today

I will probably see Chris again if he can sneak out to meet me for some Pawnee National Grassland birding next weekend. Between then and now, I will head towards Boulder were I hope to track down Flammulated owl on Tuesday/Wednesday nights. Kevin lives just outside Boulder, so I will probably stay with him for a night. This will give me a bit more time to hear about his life as it currently stands. Its really important to remember that birds are only part of the story this year. The people, both new and old friends, are just as exciting........


  1. Congrats Dorian! Two well earned birds.

  2. Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! Congrats! :-)

  3. Not a poker face -- just awe at finding these birds after we had essentially given up hope on a disheartening climb!

    Also, I think your readers deserve a word from the newly wise: Never high five when your hands are numb from wind and ice, no matter how many rosy-finches you've just seen...

  4. I was hitting refresh over and over last night and crossing my fingers that you'd seen at least one of these birds--so glad to hear you saw both!

  5. You bagged em' - congrats!

  6. What a fun blog post - well written! Congrats on the two birds, and good luck for the rest of the Colorado portion of your ride. I think you're going to really enjoy the Pawnee Grasslands.

  7. The high I feel from someone else seeing two birds is strange. I think it's the suspense you and Sonia have built so successfully over the last few days. Are you sure your mom didn't plant that ptarmigan?

  8. yippee! how exciting! and very cute birds too :)

  9. Moorhead and Kendell in the same day??? I feel like I am back on Coy 3 just thinking about it!

  10. Congrats, Dorian! What a great reward after all that patient searching. The photos are fabulous.