Bird by ear, identify the unseen

2017-7Turtle Rock Trail beaver pond by Barb Gorges

Birds are hard to see, but easy to hear, around this beaver pond on the Turtle Rock Trail at the Vedauwoo Recreation Area in the Medicine Bow National Forest west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 16, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird by ear to identify the unseen.”

By Barb Gorges

Here on the western edge of the Great Plains, our trees don’t grow so thick that you can’t walk all the way around one to see the bird that’s singing. But it is still useful to be able to identify birds by sound.

I’m a visually-oriented person, so over time I’ve learned to identify our local birds well enough to often figure out who they are as they flash by. I can only identify bird voices of the most common or unique sounding species.

At the big box stores in town, in the garden departments, there is almost always an incessant cheeping overhead from invading house sparrows.

If you get up at oh-dark-thirty on a spring or summer morning in town, you are likely to hear the cheerful “cheerio” of a robin.

Putting up a bird feeder may bring in house finches, with their different chatter. I especially like hearing the goldfinches around the thistle feeder which sound as if they are small children calling questions to each other.

Birding by ear becomes a more important skill in the mountains where the forest is thicker. The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s mid-June field trip was to the Vedauwoo Recreation Area on the Medicine Bow National Forest. We planned to hike the Turtle Rock trail. Since most of Wyoming’s birds are found near water (birdwatchers are most likely found there too), we focused on the beaver ponds.

Some birds, like the flocks of tree swallows flitting across the water, are never hidden away.

But one warbling bird was. It didn’t sound quite like a robin. I went through a mental list of birds that like riparian, or streamside, habitats and casually remarked, “Maybe it’s a warbling vireo.”

Then I realized I could check the free Merlin app on my phone and play a recording of a warbling vireo. Amazingly, it matched.

Yellow warblers are almost always somewhere around in the brush around water at upper elevations too and we could hear one. It has a very loud, unique call. Being bright yellow, it isn’t hard to spot singing in the willows.

There are species of birds that resemble each other so closely—the empidonax flycatchers—that it is necessary to hear them sing to tell them apart.

On the other hand, there are species that sound so much like each other, it causes the problem people used to have telling me and my mom apart on the phone.

For example, robin and black-headed grosbeak songs have a clear, babbling quality, but if you listen a lot while the grosbeaks are here during migration, you can tell who is the real robin.

On the trail, chapter member Don Edington picked out a bird at the tip top of an evergreen, singing away. It was yellow, with black and white wings, like an over-sized goldfinch. Its head had the lightest wash of orangey-red. It was another robin voice impersonator, the western tanager.

Visually, the sparrows are mostly a large brown cloud in my mind. The same can be said for distinguishing, much less remembering, many bird songs. I like birds with easy to remember songs, like the ruby-crowned kinglet, another bird to expect in the forest. It is so tiny your chances are slim of seeing it on its favorite perches in large spruce trees.

After being inundated by Swainson’s thrushes this spring—but all completely mute while they inspected our backyard, it was a pleasure to catch the trill of one on the trail. But then I checked it against a recording on Merlin and realized we had the thrush that doesn’t trill upwards, but the other, trilling downwards, the hermit thrush.

It does help to study the field guides in advance of seeing a bird species for the first time—just knowing which ones to expect in a certain habitat is helpful. Studying bird songs before venturing into the woods again would be as useful.

I need to crack open that new book by Nathan Pieplow, “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America,” and the corresponding recordings at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Except, we’ll only find the species we share with eastern North America. We won’t find our strictly western bird species until he finishes the western edition. But I could work on his technique for distinguishing songs—before I spend too much more time in the woods.

Note: In addition to Merlin and Peterson, find more bird sound recordings at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, or try https://macaulaylibrary.org. For the latter, try filtering by location to get birds using Wyoming dialects.

2017-07-TurtleRockTrail by Barb Gorges

The Turtle Rock Trail offers a variety of habitat types–and weather–on a mid-June Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society field trip. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Advertisements

Wyoming Roadside Attractions: Lake Marie

2-Lake Marie

A view of Lake Marie July 4, 2010, from the east, shows some of the snowdrifts blocking area trails. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 1, 2010, Wyoming Tribune Eagle: Breathtaking views abound at 10,000 feet at Lake Marie

By Barb Gorges

The Snowy Range rises out of the Medicine Bow Range. Along the juncture, a series of lakes collect snowmelt.

Lake Marie, named by an early government surveyor for his wife who later became the first woman elected to the state legislature, is the most photogenic and accessible. Small parking lots on each end are connected by a flat, paved walk.

On the west end are the restrooms and the trailhead for climbing Medicine Bow Peak, elevation 12,013 feet. Following the trail a little way will give you some great views, but hiking the peak demands preparation, physical fitness and a very early start.

On the other side of the highway is a nice sample of the trail system alongside a mountain stream.

From the smaller parking lot on the east end you can find the trail up to the Mirror Lake Picnic Area for different views of Lake Marie. Mirror Lake is also accessible by vehicle from the next turnoff east. The trailhead there leads to views of more alpine lakes.

If you hike, leaving your dog at home is easier than following the leash regulation, and safer. Visit early in the day so you aren’t caught by thunderstorms and remember you’ll be out of breath just standing along the highway at 10,000 feet.

But the wildflowers are breathtaking, too.

If you go:

Lake Marie, Snowy Range Scenic Byway

Directions: From I-80 Exit 311 at Laramie, drive about 35 miles on State Hwy. 130 west through Centennial. Distance from Cheyenne: about 90 miles.

Open: June to September, whenever the road is snow-free.

Admission: Free.

Address: Laramie Ranger District, Medicine Bow National Forest, 2468 Jackson St., Laramie.

Phone: 307-745-2300.

Web site: http://www.fs.usda.gov

Attractions: Scenery, hiking, fishing with Wyoming fishing license, wildlife viewing, picnicking at adjacent Mirror Lake Picnic Area.

Time: 20 minutes to 2 hours.

Many mountain birds

White-tailed Ptarmigan

Find the White-tailed Ptarmigan sitting among the rocks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Start at the very center and search in circles of increasing size for its small eye and brown and white feathers. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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.

Meditation on pine beetles

Pine beetle

Close-up of a Mountain Pine Beetle. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 31, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Meditation on pine beetles: Is there life after tree death?”

2015 Update: We are getting used to the idea that we need to bring our own shade when camping in National Forest campgrounds that have been cleared of hazardous, beetle-kill trees. For more information, see http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05528.html and http://www.fs.usda.gov/barkbeetle. See another column about pine beetles that was posted about a week ago, that was published in 2006.

By Barb Gorges

For anyone who doesn’t regularly recreate in or travel through the forests of south central Wyoming and north central Colorado, the photos of pine beetle damage shown at January’s Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society meeting might have been a shock. Especially the photos of grown trees blown down like straws and campgrounds denuded by the removal of hazardous trees.

Many of the 75 people in the audience, however, judging by their questions and comments, have mountain property and are in the midst of the battle field.

The largest mountain landowner, the U.S. Forest Service, was represented by the evening’s speaker, Steve Carrey, director of renewable resources for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. One irate audience member demanded to know why the Forest Service hadn’t headed this epidemic off when it started.

Pine beetle-infested forest

This photo was taken in 2008 at the YMCA near Winter Park, Colorado, shortly after dead pine trees were removed in an area that had been heavily forested. There are many more dead trees on the mountain sides. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The simple explanation is that pine beetles are always with us but were at a high point in their cycle when drought was weakening trees of an age beetles prefer and warm winters didn’t freeze any beetles dead following the initial outbreak in 1996 west of Denver. It created, as Steve said, a perfect storm. Lack of funding hasn’t helped either.

Even with limitless funds, one cannot spray every pine tree in the forest or change the climate quickly.

One can only clean up the mess, clearing dead trees before they fall across roads, trails, power lines and campgrounds and before they begin to burn.

No one seems to want the dead trees—the price of timber is still too low to reopen more than one of the local sawmills. Some are being turned into pellets for pellet stoves and there is talk of building a plant that uses wood to generate electricity.

Lodgepole pine is the main tree being killed. The stands we are used to seeing on the Medicine Bow are 80 to 150 years old, the regrowth after initial logging. Most of us in the audience will not be around to see this second regrowth reach maturity.

In fact, many people looked old enough to have been recreating on the forest over 50 years (30 for me) and may not be around in 10-15 years when the trees are finished falling over and are no longer hazardous except as fuel in wildfires. Even then, a stroll off the trail will entail climbing over the deadfall.

Downed trees may, happily, slow illegal off-road driving.

Pine beetle evidence

A lodgepole pine in the Medicine Bow National Forest tried to push pine beetles out with wellings of sap at multiple locations. Photo by Barb Gorges.

It tears at my heart to see ponderosa pines turning red between Cheyenne and Laramie, along my favorite Pole Mountain trails, knowing that soon it will be unsafe to roam there, for awhile. But I don’t feel the same about the mountain sides of lodgepole monoculture over west of Laramie and have never yearned for a cabin in that dense forest.

Having, on quests for elk, tramped through the endless monotony of tree trunks as far as the eye can see, with no underbrush, no bird song, only squirrel chatter and the occasional break for a birdy, spruce-lined creek and beaver pond, or rocky outcropping with a view of soaring hawks, I’m ready for a change.

Having driven endless miles of roads lined with future telephone poles right down to the shoulder, wondering when a deer will spring out to meet my bumper, I’ll appreciate the change.

A connoisseur of cloud formations and sunsets, I look forward to vistas opening up. Let’s just hope that all the mountain cabins and structures that come into view are picturesque.

There may be a lack of shade, but the forecast is that the sunny slopes will produce lots of grass and shrubs, even aspen, before the pines shade them out again, not unlike a clearcut or burn.

Just exactly which wildlife species will disappear and which will appreciate the change is ripe for research by a generation or two of grad students.

Doesn’t this remind you of the 1988 Yellowstone fires?

The difference is that the Medicine Bow isn’t quite done with the epidemic. For a few more years each year’s generation of beetles will fly to new trees mid-summer, where they’ll burrow under the bark and lay eggs that hatch into larva that eat the trees’ cambium layer, girdling and killing the trees over the winter, with the red needles showing the following summer as the next generation of adults flies off.

Pine beetle damage

Closeup of a spot where the pine beetle chewed into a pine and the tree responded with a clot of sap. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The year the new beetles can’t find any live trees to bore into and lay eggs will be the year their population plummets.

If you want to see how our forest will soon look, visit central Colorado. Visit the web site www.fs.fed.us/r2/bark-beetle .

Losing the forest we know and love is like losing our old dog, the one whose body language we know so well he doesn’t even have to ask to be let outside. The new forest will be as dynamic as a puppy, full of surprises and excitement, anxious to grow.

Southeast Wyoming birding destinations abundant

Birding Sage-Grouse lek

Very early morning in early spring near Laramie, Wyoming, birders focus on a Greater Sage-Grouse lek. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 5, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Resolution produces list of field trip destinations.”
2015 Update: So many places, so little time.
By Barb Gorges
Here we are at the top of the 2005 calendar, with a total of 53 Saturdays for field trips. This year has a bonus because it starts and ends on Saturdays.
My resolution is to get to know birds better by getting out more often. One of the best ways to do this is on organized field trips.
A week or so ago I was compiling a record of Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society field trips for the past 17 years. There is a noticeable, yearly pattern.
Unlike scheduling monthly chapter programs for variety, field trips thrive on return engagements. In bird watching, no matter how may days you visit the same place, any one of them could be the day you see an interesting bird behavior, a bird that’s new for you, or rare for the whole birding community.
The field trip year for Cheyenne birders is anchored by two major events, the Christmas Bird Count, usually held the Saturday after Christmas, and the Big Day bird count held on, or the first Saturday after, May 15. Both events concentrate on Cheyenne, especially the two designated state Important Bird Areas, Lions Park and Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Both sites are representative of the city in general, a forested island on the plains, attractive to avian life.
What also attracts birds and makes a good field trip location is water, the centerpiece of both of those IBAs and most of the past destinations.
Time of year is also important. With the exception of the Christmas Count and excursions around town in January, mostly to combat cabin fever, admire chickadees and to see if there is any open water where a lost duck has unexpectedly dropped in, migration is the big draw.

Hutton Lake NWR

Field trip participants check out Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge in early summer. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mountain bluebirds cruise in as early as February and after that, it’s a steady stream of visitors. Things settle down briefly in June, but then in July, Arctic-nesting shorebirds have finished their parental duties and start the parade through Wyoming in reverse.
By November, birders are watching for stragglers, wondering if they’ll stick around to be counted at Christmas and wondering also if later and later dates for the last observation of a migrating species reflects global warming.
With the advent of spring migration, and again in the fall, the chapter’s constellation of field trip destinations is broader. To the west are Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge and all the other Laramie Plains Lakes.
To the east are sharp-tailed grouse dancing grounds and further east is the area referred to as Goshen Hole, a collection of public access areas in the vicinity of Hawk Springs Reservoir, such as Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Table Mountain and Springer-Bump Sullivan Wildlife Habitat Management Areas.
To the south are Pawnee National Grassland and the reservoirs along the Colorado Front Range.
The big reservoirs to the north, along the North Platte, Alcova, Pathfinder and Seminoe, are a little far for a day trip, but Murie Audubon members from the Casper area keep close tabs on them.
Though farther, Cheyenne birders are much more likely to make an overnight trek to Nebraska to see the sandhill crane migration sometime during the height of the phenomenon, between mid-March and mid-April. We’re there more to enjoy the mass of birdlife rather than the diversity of species, but also cherish the hope we’ll glimpse a rare whooping crane.

Sinks Canyon

Wyoming birders head for the mountains in summer. This is Sinks Canyon. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Come summer, water is still an attraction, but Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon members also begin to head for the mountains, just like the juncos. It looks like the Snowy Range survey for brown-capped rosy-finches will be repeated after last summer’s success.
Then there’s the annual chapter camp out which over the years has met more weather-induced obstacles than the Christmas Count. We’ve tried twice to hold it at Friend Park, at the foot of Laramie Peak, but the first time we got smoked out by a forest fire and last year the mud was too deep.
This year, the plan is to schedule the camp out for July 8-10 and headquarter it at Battle Creek in the Sierra Madres. The gathering of birders will be put to work looking for nesting flammulated owls and purple martins.
One of the enjoyable past camp outs was to the Saratoga area. Several Wyoming Game and Fish Department public access areas, Treasure Island, Foote, and Saratoga Lake, are in the North Platte River valley, featured in the annual Platte Valley Festival of the Birds June 5-6.
Other areas with public access administered by Game and Fish are cataloged in their publication, Access to Wyoming’s Wildlife. Reviewing the table of contents is like reading the names of old friends, stirring up memories of many family outings, with or without Audubon.
Bird watching is a classic example of what can be a solo recreational pursuit. But the advantage to an organized field trip is that someone is bound to know something more about birds than I do, which is a much better way to learn than by reading, especially since local knowledge of local birds may best that of a book written for all of North America.
I don’t know yet how many return engagements will be scheduled by the chapter this year. Each will be a welcome reunion, if not an adventure to some place new.

Wyoming Hereford Ranch

The Wyoming Hereford Ranch, outside Cheyenne, yields interesting migrants in early fall. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mountain mud bothers birders, not birds

American Dipper

Look for the American Dipper along mountain streams. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 8, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Mountain mud bothers birders, but not birds.”

2014 Update: Now that we are in less of a drought, taking muddy conditions into account is even more important.

By Barb Gorges

Ever notice how often precipitation in Wyoming is dangerous? When temperatures are cold it forms ice and drifts, stranding people and animals.

When it’s warmer, precipitation comes as fog, thunderstorms, hail, tornados and floods. This summer we’ve been treated to the unusual—days of gentle drizzle. Drizzle, however, can make a malicious, muddy mess of roads, which it did in the latter part of June, on the eve of our Audubon chapter’s fourth annual birdwatching camp out.

Just before Mark and I were due to leave home Friday afternoon for Friend Park Campground on the west side of Laramie Peak in the Medicine Bow National Forest, our boys drove in from the Boy Scout camp on the east side. “Slick roads, Mom!” they reported.

A quick call to the Forest Service district office in Douglas confirmed what we suspected, Friend Park was out of reach, but the Esterbrook campground was possible. That’s where the Wyoming Native Plant Society was meeting Saturday morning, and we had already planned to join them later for dinner.

So I called everyone I had a number for and gave them the change in plans and prayed anyone else would be too much of a fair-weather birder or have too much common sense to chance the mud on the road into Friend Park.

Our birdwatching goal was to check out several types of habitat with Bill Munro, the district wildlife biologist, as our guide. We were particularly interested in burn areas that might attract uncommon woodpeckers. Two years ago, when we first tried to schedule the annual camp out at Friend Park, we got smoked out by the Hensel fire.

Our route along Horseshoe Creek was full of birds including the spotted towhee, green-tailed towhee and lazuli bunting. These are birds I see in my Cheyenne backyard only during spring migration and they made for bright and enjoyable identification practice for the novice birder in our group.

Two families of pygmy nuthatches scampered around the ponderosa pine branch tips. At only four inches long, it’s a wonder these sociable gossips manage to be so voluble while stuffing their bills with insects for their young.

Almost all large soaring birds overhead were turkey vultures—the few others remained unidentified. Flitting in the willows along the creek were yellow warblers, robins, goldfinches, broad-tailed hummingbirds and cedar waxwings.

At a bridge we found an American dipper working the stream. Scrambling around, we were able to find both its old and new nests stuck to the underside of the bridge. The other bird wading the creek, doing an imitation of a dipper, turned out to be a spotted sandpiper.

Sunshine and a veneer of mud on the roads dogged us all the way to the scout camp at Harris Park where we found a bird-full place for picnic lunch.

Our older son, Bryan, the camp’s ecology director this year, showed us a recently deceased bird. Jane Dorn identified it as a western wood-pewee. Yesterday it had been lethargic, Bryan said, and today it was dead. Its lack of fat reserves led us to think that while the previous week’s cold weather had kept flying insect levels down, it may also have
contributed to the starvation of this particular flycatcher.

However, another kind of flycatcher, the Say’s phoebe, its nest stashed under the eaves of the dining hall, seemed no worse for wear. House wrens were acting suspiciously like they had a nest in the tool shed and the western tanagers, which Bryan said were nesting over the nature lodge, could be seen busy feeding, making up for lost time.

The Hensel fire had crept into the upper end of the camp in 2002, so we followed the Black Mountain road on foot through camp and out into the forest to explore the burn.

Someone earlier in the day had complained that there was no good, leafless, time of year to bird the coniferous forest, but here there was nothing but black trunks and a carpet of green splashed with wildflowers. It still was not easy, especially when the sought after woodpecker species are mostly black and their white markings would be shining like sunshine on charcoaled bark. We found hairy woodpeckers, but no three-toed or black-backed.

For three of us, the Black Mountain fire lookout became our goal and we concentrated on the ascent rather than birdwatching, but we didn’t miss the blue grouse unconcernedly grazing just off the trail. On the way down it was much easier to observe the treetops and notice a Swainson’s thrush singing the cascading melody we’d heard all day.

Evening showers while we shared potluck back at the campground made the trip down to pavement afterwards a bit of a nailbiter. So for next year, we’ve set our sites on another good birding location but with more gravel on the road: the Sierra Madres, on whatever weekend follows the July 4th holiday.

For those of you managing water supplies during this multi-year drought, we will entertain suggestions to plan a camp out in your area, but we can’t guarantee rain, only good birds, good food and good company.

Designated wilderness makes for special hikes

Antelope bitterbrush

Antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) is a shrub important to wildlife. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 13, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Solitude found off-road.”

2014 Update: Designated roadless areas continue to be protected. Someday, some might grow up to be wilderness areas.

By Barb Gorges

We know from experience the primitive two-track we’re following along a ridge top in the Medicine Bow National Forest will soon deteriorate and dead end at an unofficial scenic overlook.

To avoid unnecessary wear and tear on our vehicle we stop half a mile short, still getting a view of the snowy Sierra Madres.

The rule of thumb for travel in our family is that drive time must be matched or exceeded by time spent “being there.”

Being there this time means loading up the day packs and heading off the road. From looking at the topo map we know we only have to follow the steep little valley for about a mile to our destination, the North Gate Canyon on the North Platte River in the Platte River Wilderness.

Either by plan or accident, the sagebrush on the south-facing slope we are walking has burned, and the charcoal stumps mark our pant legs.

The antelope bitterbrush is blooming and so are all the colors of the Roy G. Biv rainbow: red/orange of a kind of penstemon and a paintbrush; yellow of wild buckwheats and varieties of DYC’s (sunflower types known to some botanists as darn yellow composites); green in a thousand shades of leaves and buds; blue through indigo and violet in more penstemons, harebell, bluebells, larkspur and loosestrife.

In the hot pink zone is the bitteroot, with its blossoms barely visible above the red gravel, and thickets of wild roses. White is represented too, yarrow, wild geranium and rosettes of evening primrose.

Signs of moose and elk are everywhere as we negotiate the hillside.

Finally we are walking in a little alley between willows and sagebrush, just across the creek from a north-facing hillside in deep green of fir and spruce.

The creek itself is one long series of beaver ponds. Where one dam has blown out we can see beaver tracks in the silt left behind.

We catch glimpses of snakes and chipmunks, find crickets and dragonflies and watch fish flop, but the birds are easiest to notice.

Mark points out rock wrens singing from the edges of lichen-encrusted boulders. Otherwise, to me most of the bird songs are like hearing meaningful language on a New York subway that is not only indecipherable to me, but I can’t even tell if it’s Latvian or Estonian.

While we debate the identity of a bird in a tree, another bursts from the grass behind us and disappears into the willows. The size, shape and color remind me of a meadowlark, but the location is unlikely.

When a second hurtles itself into the brush, Mark decides it’s a young grouse, a theory soon validated by an adult blue grouse lifting off. Four more young follow, one by one.

The sky has been gloomy all afternoon, a boon to hiking the treeless side of the canyon. We want to spend more time at the river, but rain feels imminent. Five hundred feet of elevation to climb back will be arduous enough without worrying about slipping on wet rocks and grass or being struck by lightning.

We intercept the road near its end and follow it back to our vehicle.

Sometimes it’s relaxing not having to plan every footstep, but our boots crunch too loudly on the gravel. Roads are great. Roadless is even better. When I get too old to climb down to the river, I’ll still be able to sit on the ridge and remember what it is like to find my own way without motor noise.

I plan to write a letter asking the U.S. Forest Service to protect its roadless areas from road construction (as proposed in the Roadless Conservation Initiative Draft Environmental Statement), as well as from harmful commercial and recreational activities.

Official roadless areas have been left alone this long. We can continue doing without their meager possible contributions to industry and protect their enormous contributions to healthy wildlife and low-impact recreation.