Published Sept. 27, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Many mountain birds mean summer of no regrets”
By Barb Gorges
This fall I have no summer regrets. I made it to the mountains several times.
For me, the best reason for living in the West is access to mountains—living within commuting distance of timberline.
From Cheyenne, the alpine tundra along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is about two hours away, as are the trailheads for the Snowy Range in the Medicine Bow National Forest.
The national park was my introduction to mountains when I was 6 years old. I had traveled from Wisconsin with my parents and grandparents on the occasion of my uncle’s graduation from University of Colorado. This year the occasion was his memorial, and I was helping introduce his 6- and 3-year-old grandchildren to mountains.
The Snowies, on the other hand, I found on my own, when the lotto game that is federal seasonal work brought me to Wyoming. I was lucky this summer to visit three times, twice above 10,000 feet.
On Father’s Day afternoon it was rather appalling to see the traffic on Rocky Mountain’s Trail Ridge Road, amplified by the park’s 100th anniversary celebration.
It’s a pilgrimage. At every comfort station, one parks and walks a trail out into the landscape. But other than a selfie with magnificent mountains in the background, I’m not sure if many of the pilgrims know what they are seeking as the stiff wind makes them shiver in their tank tops, short shorts and flip flops.
A few weeks later in mid-July, all of us on the Audubon field trip at least knew exactly what miracles to look for as pilgrims hurried past us.
We wanted to see the sparrow-like American pipits. It’s hard to pick them out from the litter of rocks and plethora of wildflowers. But soon we recognized their calls and realized they were all around us.
Our other goal was the white-tailed ptarmigan—high-altitude relative of sage-grouse—which turns white in winter and brown in summer. Except that in July, the birds are really just a mottled/speckled brown and white, matching perfectly those lichen-encrusted rocks scattered all around.
We found the location of the previous e-Bird sighting of a ptarmigan and resigned ourselves to examining every rock along the way, knowing that unless the wind ruffled the bird’s feathers or it decided to move, we might never see it. But we were joined by a birding tour leader on her day off, as well as two other hikers who were lucky enough to find a hen taking a stroll and who pointed it out. There are some advantages to crowds.
A week later in the Snowies, Mark and I took one of the trails starting at Brooklyn Lake, expecting many fewer people.
But a file of at least 40 teenagers from a Midwestern church passed us, toting serious backpacking equipment. I like to think that, like the crowds in Rocky Mountain, these people will become supporters for preserving this country’s wild lands.
The wonderful wildflower displays made up for a lack of birds on this first Snowies trip, but three weeks later, on an Audubon chapter hike, things were reversed. The wildflowers were waning, but the birds were gathering, and we were the big group, 15 people between the ages of 10 months and 75 years old.
We never hit tree line, only getting as far as the trees growing in isolated islands. Gobs of ruby-crowned kinglets flitted in and out of the branches of Engelmann spruce. Three mountain chickadees carried their conversation to the outer branches where we could see them clearly. Pine grosbeaks, larger versions of our house finches in town, were busy grooming their feathers in plain sight. Young spotted sandpipers, their bodies mere halos of stiff white fuzz perched on impossibly long legs, scrabbled after their parent, negotiating the rubble at the foot of a snowfield still melting and providing the watery habitat they needed.
Juncos were flashing their white outer-tail feathers everywhere. Soon, we will see them down in town.
Not only did the 10,000-foot elevation offer its usual respite from summer heat, but puffy clouds, dead ringers for snow clouds, sailed by on cold wind, keeping us in our winter jackets, which we were experienced enough to bring. Birdwatchers just don’t hike hard enough to warm up, and this day there were 17 species of birds making the 3-mile round trip take more than four hours.
Back at the parking lot, the fall feeling, stirred by the wind and the gathering birds, was amplified by realizing the meadow grasses had gone to seed and turned brown—in early August.
Now fall is finally here at lower elevations.
Summer is such a fleeting season at high altitude, but at least this year, I didn’t let it pass me by.