More Fun in the Alpine (Camp Colorado Day 3)

Lifers Denoted by Bold

My doormates and I woke up earlier than the rest of the group the next morning and went out with the goal of finding dusky grouse. Outside it was still raining, but it looked as if it might be starting to clear away; a good sign for us as it gave us a glimmer of hope of making it up to the tundra that day.

Silently as we tried to fully wake up, we trudged over to the area of the property where we had seen Williamson’s sapsucker the day before. We had been told the night before that the best way to find grouse was to move slowly through good habitat and scan for movement. We followed these instructions to the letter, fanning out through the forest and paying close attention for our quarry.

I also made use of the opportunity of birding with a small group to make some recordings of bird song. The rain kept a lot of birds down but I got some nice recordings of a few western species.

A large buck mule deer made an appearance as we hiked through the sage patches lining the hills, and we spotted a mountain chickadee nest accompanied by a pair of birds singing persistently over the sound of the nearby creek, its banks swollen with days of near-continuous rain.

The surprise bird of the morning was a belted kingfisher which we heard calling as it flew along the entrance road to the YMCA; a bird I had never really thought about being at such high elevations.

We had to be back at the dorms for breakfast however, so we soon had to turn back and make our way in that directions, unfortunately without the grouse we had hoped for but pleased with what had been a very enjoyable early morning jaunt.

Arriving back at the dorms, we found that we would not be going to the tundra that day due to the rain and would instead be doing a bit more alpine birding. After a quick breakfast, we set out to do just that.

Unsurprisingly given the weather for the past couple of days, it was raining when we arrived at Endovalley in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, we were undeterred and quickly were rewarded for our efforts with a red-naped sapsucker nest and the first western wood-pewee of the trip.

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Western Wood-pewee

Beginning to hike, we got views of Stellar’s jay, another first for the trip, and well as more views of red-naped sapsuckers and great looks and audio of a male Macgillivray’s warbler.

This area of the park had apparently been heavily flooded a few years back and the effects were obvious as the trail was still a bit washed out and we would pass the occasional large boulder, failing to blend in in the lowland valley.

The trail was rather short and eventually ended at a large waterfall. It looked like perfect habitat for an American dipper and indeed it was as one of these lead-coloured birds soon bobbed into view. A Townsend’s solitaire and “western” warbling vireo nest were other highlights.

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Warbling Vireo Nest

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Townsend’s Solitaire in the Rain

Driving to another spot in Endovalley, we could see large stands of aspen in the meadows bordering the road. This is the habitat that is typical of this portion of the park and brings a unique suite of birds with it. The swathes of aspen are particularly vital for cavity nesting birds such as red-naped sapsuckers and tree swallows. Proof of this was quickly discovered when we got out of the vans at our next stop as nests of both these species were soon found. Lincoln’s sparrows and Macgillivray’s warblers sang in the background as we birded our way through a few aspen groves. Wilson’s warblers at a nest were good to see, as was a song sparrow and tree and violet-green swallows sitting side-by-side, making for great comparison.

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Red-naped Sapsucker

However, the real highlight of the morning was to come on the drive out of Endovalley. The silence of the vans was broken as Jack Chaillet, another camper from Pittsburgh, called out that he had seen a grouse. Panic quickly broke out as the van slammed to a stop, everyone craned their necks to where Jack was directing, the other van was radioed with what had been seen, and the campers all prepared for a hasty exit from the van.

Sure enough, when we got out of the van, we spotted a female dusky grouse along the roadside. However, even better than just seeing this great bird was that it had 6(!) chicks with it!!

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Dusky Grouse

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Dusky Grouse Chick

The next twenty minutes of so were incredible as we watched the grouse family slowly meander its way across the slope, not seeming to care that more than 20 pairs of eyes were staring at it and that an ungodly number of camera lenses were pointing at it. An out of place yellow-bellied marmot and a heard-only flyover Clark’s nutcracker sweetened the deal a bit more.

However, we couldn’t watch the grouse forever (much as we would have wanted to) and had to move on. Before pulling out however, a passer-by told us that they had just seen a moose in the meadow across the road from us. This would have been a great mammal to see and so we all hiked back in the direction in which they pointed us. However, we saw no sign of the moose and we decided that startling an adult moose wasn’t the best idea so we quickly gave up.

Still high off of dusky grouse, we arrived at our next stop, Beaver Meadows, where we were going to try for American three-toed woodpecker after our dip the day before. The rain began to pick up again after a brief lull as we unloaded the vans and began to walk down the trail, a bad omen for woodpecker success. The three-toed was indeed a no-show but two Williamson’s sapsuckers and a beautiful mountain bluebird made up for it a bit (not that we could be disapointed after the grouse show).

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Williamson’s Sapsucker

After returning to the YMCA and eating a much-needed lunch, we were permitted by another brief break in the rain to go down to the banding station on the property where Scott Rashid was banding. Banding is always good to see and this demonstration was particularly so as it was the first time I have seen interior western birds in the hand. The cordilleran flycatcher, band-tailed pigeons, uinta chipmunks, and Cassin’s finches around the banding station didn’t hurt much either. However, it was a bit overshadowed when, just after the banding was finished, a northern goshawk came ripping through the feeding station and landed in a bush just past it. The camp exploded into chaos as shouts of “Goshawk!” went up and everyone ran to get a look at it perched (those who had missed the one on the first day were especially anxious to get a look). However, the bird didn’t stay still for long and quickly launched itself off its perched and careened into the woods.

Not to be beaten that easily, a number of us took off at a full sprint (a challenging feat while carrying a ten-pound camera) in the direction which it had flown, hoping to catch it as it exited the woods. However, arriving, slightly out of breath, at the far end of the woodlot, we saw no sign of the massive accipiter. We fanned out from there, determined to relocate it and began to search the woods. After maybe 5 minutes, a camper gave out a shout that he saw it in flight and sure enough it burst out of the forest and gained altitude, heading up over the buildings of the YMCA, a couple of American crows not far behind.

And that was the way in which we rounded out the third day of Camp Colorado, a day which, despite our initially lower expectations, ended up being one of the best days of the camp.

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