Denver Trip: Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak

We closed out last year’s trip to Colorado with visits to Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak,* two geological marvels. By this time we had moved our base of operations to Mueller State Park, which was delightful in its own right. The Park offers excellent campsites with access to good facilities, hiking trails, and gorgeous landscapes. During these few days even our downtime was filled with breathtaking natural scenery.

This was all during my 2017 bird blitz, so of course I can’t talk about any part of the trip without including some birding notes. In Mueller State Park we were welcomed by turkeys and pygmy nuthatches, and harassed by uppity gray jays. It was here I saw my first Williamson’s sapsucker. We also shared the space with crows and magpies, as well as mountain chickadees and Steller’s jays. At Garden of the Gods I only tallied seven bird species, but four of them were life birds for this East Coaster. High above the rock walls flitted many white-throated swifts, and I spotted a soaring prairie falcon. Closer to the ground I was introduced to a pair each of spotted towhees and Woodhouse’s scrub-jays. My Pikes Peak list was even shorter: American pipits and Lincoln’s sparrows were the only birds I could identify.

Birds were but a small piece of the overall majesty of the area. The view from our campsite in Mueller State Park spoke of the beauty and wonder that was to come. We enjoyed a few short but lovely hikes in the park between our ventures farther afield, and all were rewarding. I would spend a few days here again, given the chance. More forested slopes, broad vistas, and sheltered beaver ponds await my return.

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The view from our campsite

A few more views from the park

It’s hard to do justice to impressive rock formations with still two-dimensional images, but Garden of the Gods is a heck of a place to try. The reddish stones loom over vast acres of fields, pockmarked with holes and crevices. Even in September, ice can be seen peeking out from some of these hideaways. A loop drive offers several access points to hike through the interior, and the access to the public is well set up and seamlessly integrated into the landscape. Pikes Peak beckons as a backdrop to the whole stunning scene.

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Pikes Peak standing behind some of the Garden’s formations

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Speaking of Pikes Peak… that was our next (and final) destination. I admit I had some reservations, fearing it to be a bit of a tourist trap. It felt like maybe it was cheating to just drive up such a tall mountain. I was wrong. I couldn’t categorize anything about Pikes Peak as disappointing. It was stunning. If you seek one of those places that makes you feel small in the face of the universe, this is a place for you.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this concept is to show you what Garden of the Gods looks like from the summit of Pikes Peak.

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Yep. It’s those few pieces of gravel there under the arrow. I don’t think I can say much more except to throw a lot of superlatives and let them run down the page, so I will close with a collection of photos from our ascent and the summit.

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This beautiful lake sits at the foot with the peak in full view

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An alternative means for ascending the mountain

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*Yes, apparently the lack of an apostrophe is correct. Huh.

 

 

2017 Birding Goal: Achieved!

This will be a quick (and possibly boring to many of you) post. I am writing today simply to affirm a personal achievement. I decided early that 2017 would be the year I got better at birding. As a part of that ambition, I set the goal of compiling a 2017 year list of at least 162 birds. Why 162? As of 12/31/16, my life list stood at 161 bird species. As I learned more about birds I questioned some of those records enough to reduce that total somewhat but chose to retain the original goal. On a day trip to Assateague Island last Saturday, two new year birds put me over the top.

Pelecanus occidentalis (18)The first of these was a brown pelican spotted from the car as we crossed one of the small bridges on the Eastern Shore. Once we arrived at the beach I saw a couple dozen more. There’s nothing particularly special about this bird, except that I hadn’t seen one yet in 2017. Brown pelicans are large, unmistakable, and common so therefore an extremely easy box to check provided one spends a little time in their habitat.

The second was a least tern. Again, it’s a fairly common bird and marking it off is only a slightly higher bar to clear than the pelican. Still, I have only recently learned how to separate terns (and am as yet not great at it), so this one felt more significant. During strolls up and down the beach I spotted 4 or 5 more of these small birds. The other birds I saw this day were repeats, but I was struck by how much easier they were to identify than when I began this focused effort. More importantly than the list is the seeming success of the method of self-instruction. It seems, at least for me, that intense focus on one subject is a better way to build my knowledge of the natural world than simply studying whatever I find.

I suppose now is the time to get the list itself out of the way before I ramble on too long. If you’re interested in seeing the first 104 entries on my 2017 year list, they are enumerated in three previous posts here, here, and over there. New life birds are in bold.

105. broad-winged hawk
106. Baltimore oriole
Icterus galbula (5)
107. wood thrush
108. green heron
Butorides virescens (9)
109. purple martin
Progne subis (1)

110. ovenbird
111. eastern wood-pewee
112. indigo bunting
113. solitary sandpiper
114. chimney swift
115. cedar waxwing
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116. orchard oriole
117. veery
118. common yellowthroat
119. red-eyed vireo
120. yellow warbler
121. eastern kingbird
122. northern parula
123. Swainson’s thrush
124. American redstart
125. bank swallow
126. blue grosbeak
127. great crested flycatcher
128. boat-tailed grackle
129. ruddy turnstone
130. laughing gull
Leucophaeus atricilla (2)
131. dunlin
132. red knot
133. sanderling
134. semipalmated sandpiper
135. short-billed dowitcher
136. willet
Tringa semipalmata
137. common tern
138. snowy egret
139. American avocet
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140. semipalmated plover
141. black-bellied plover
142. least sandpiper
143. wild turkey
Meleagris gallopavo (2)
144. white-eyed vireo
145. yellow-breasted chat
146. ruby-throated hummingbird
147. scarlet tanager
148. field sparrow
149. prairie warbler
150. acadian flycatcher
151. willow flycatcher
152. cliff swallow
153. spotted sandpiper
154. little blue heron
Egretta caerulea (4)
155. yellow-billed cuckoo
156. pectoral sandpiper
157. lesser yellowlegs
158. horned lark
159. black-and-white warbler
160. least flycatcher
161. brown pelican
162. least tern

Reflecting on the full list, a few things are apparent. First: given how many very common and distinctive birds are new to my life list, I had a pretty pathetic life list going into this year. Second: given the total number of new-to-me birds (55), it would really be better for me to tack on at least a handful of additional species to be really certain I’ve hit the mark. I’m not self-assured enough to believe that all 162 birds are 100% certain. I tried to set a very high bar for counting a bird, but I’m far from perfect and still honing my skills. Third: I never would have gotten close without ebird.org and Cornell’s all about birds website and Merlin Bird ID tool. I know I have plugged these things unrelentingly, but for good reason.

So, what’s next? There is still plenty of time in 2017 to expand this list. I have an upcoming trip to the Rockies which should yield new opportunities, and the bulk of the Fall migration is yet to come. Juveniles and winter-plumage birds are more of a challenge than their adult and spring counterparts, but there’s no reason I can’t pick out at least a few more. Can I reach 200? That seems like a nice round number to aim for now.

Final note: photos above are not necessarily the same individuals identified this year, but all are my own.

 

12 Months of Nature: May

Breeding Horseshoe Crabs

May’s adventure marked a return to the same general location as my February trip, but with a different target in mind. This time I was making my way to the shores of the Delaware Bay to observe breeding horseshoe crabs and the related food web in action. On the surface, that may not sound like something worth a two-hour drive, but I was lured by a mental picture of a thick blanket of horseshoe crabs covering sandy beaches while shorebirds greedily feasted. After all, up until this trip I had almost exclusively seen horseshoe crabs singly or in small groups, and post-mortem. Their otherworldly appearance fascinates me. So, I took an extra vacation day I had in my pocket, rose early, and headed for the DuPont Nature Center and Slaughter Beach.

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scoped view of a black-bellied plover amid some dunlin

“Come for the crabs, stay for the shorebirds,” should be the tagline. I was a little early for the peak activity – my schedule would not permit otherwise – but still there was enough for me to understand why this phenomenon has an accompanying festival and generates quite a bit of naturalist buzz. The basics are that the Delaware Bay provides optimal conditions for horseshoe crabs to breed in late Spring, supporting more of the crabs than anywhere else. Migratory shorebirds, particularly red knots and ruddy turnstones, have in turn learned to exploit the predictability of this cycle, timing their Spring migration to include a stop on the Bay’s beaches on their northward journey. These birds are following a particularly long migratory path and thus arrive often near starvation and always in need of energy. Without this food source most would not be able to complete the trip.

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I obeyed the rules, though admittedly sometimes pushing them as far as these swallows.

My first stop was at the DuPont Nature Center, which is a renowned spot for viewing shorebirds. There was a birding group who arrived around the same time I did, and the leader was kind enough to point some birds out for me and include me as a sort of de-facto member. With her help and the aid of my scope, I was able to pick out dozens of dunlin, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, and short-billed dowitchers. There were also a smattering of willets and semipalmated sandpipers and of course hundreds of “shorebird x” birds. What was a little surprising was an apparent shortage of red knots – the poster child for this whole thing. There were some, but not the numbers I’d expected. The Nature Center staff assured us they were around, though – they reported counting hundreds in a banding project just days before. Of course the shorebirds were not alone. laughing gulls, herring gulls, and common terns shared the beach and skies with them, as did several osprey and a small flock of barn swallows. Seemingly every post supported a double-crested cormorant. I spent about an hour and a half here and could tell this was going to be a successful day.

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A crab I thought was dead waves its appendages frantically to disabuse me of this notion.

Next up was Slaughter Beach. This was the spot where I expected not to be able to move without treading on horseshoe crabs. That would prove to be an unfounded assumption, but the crabs were abundant – living and deceased. Every few yards was a live crab, or a carapace, or a pile of discarded crab guts. Trails in the sand told the story of their journeys after being deposited ashore by the mild surf. The birds were far less plentiful here, and I got the impression that so were the crabs. The action seemed to mostly be taking place on sandbars and sheltered flats, as well as beachheads less accessible to the public. Still, I enjoyed every moment of the stroll and came upon some unexpected bonuses. For example, I was definitely not expecting the large numbers of purple martins swooping and diving over the sand. I also had to do a double-take at several skates swimming in the shallows, and at the eastern diamondback terrapins peering cautiously from the waters. At first I put the two together in my mind, thinking I was spotting sea turtles. I may have nerded out extensively before I figured out the truth… but this was OK, because I was fine with nerding out over the truth anyway.

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This particular terrapin was unlucky.

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Having already checked off the two big purposes for the trip, I still had a few hours to kill. So, recalling a great experience from a few months ago I returned to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Once again this proved a rewarding choice. This was a second great opportunity to check off some shorebirds on my year and life lists, and included the highlight of the trip: a pair of American avocets. These were a first for me and are among the coolest-looking birds I have ever seen. The thin, upcurved bill, upright posture, and white stripe just makes them look so elegant.

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An American avocet

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Prior Months of Nature

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers