For two and a half months, I had been working at a relatively remote National Wildlife Refuge in Utah known as Fish Springs. Established in 1959, the refuge encompasses 10,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands but totals to nearly 18,000 acres. Being over three hours away from Salt Lake City, not too many people visit Fish Springs, but the birding opportunities there are remarkable.
How remote is Fish Springs? The nearest town, Delta, is at least an hour and a half drive on gravel and dirt roads. During this time, I had gotten to know the refuge’s extraordinary beauty. Within the Great Basin Desert, this is an oasis for more than 298 species of birds as well other wildlife seen on the refuge. Therefore, the refuge requires extensive monitoring and careful planning to ensure that this continues to be a haven for wildlife.
As part of my internship, the majority of my time involved spraying noxious weeds (i.e., perennial pepperweed and spotted knapweed), but I had been occupied with fieldwork, too. Once a week, I conducted evening surveys, with the focus on snowy plovers. As an important stopover site, Fish Springs has one percent of the Pacific Coast western snowy plover population, which breed here annually. Besides snowy plovers, I also surveyed other resources of concern, including American Avocets, White-faced Ibises, Long-billed Curlews, American Bitterns, and Virginia Rails, whose numbers will help influence future management decisions.
For the last three weeks of my time there, I had been conducting sub-aquatic vegetation (SAV) surveys as part of a larger study for 2015 involving eight other refuges. Along with two other people, we sampled a select number of sites within five different refuge units and analyzed the composition of those sites, such as canopy cover percentage, depth, and temperature. This data will also help with the habitat management plan for managing waterfowl and other migratory species that utilize those important food resources, such as sago pondweed, muskgrass, and widgeon grass.
I enjoyed my time out there, but I missed being back home in Indiana. Now that I’m home, I miss the views of the sun rising and setting over the mountains and seeing every star in the night sky. Being in Utah gave me a great perspective on life, and I hope that these memories will last a lifetime.
School of Public and Environmental Affairs
Indiana University, 2015
Time to wrap up the Colorado trip. This post and one more should do it.
After birding the Grand Junction area for 4 days I planned to spend the last full day in the area walking/hiking and see if I had actually learned some of the western birds without having to stop and think about it. I decided to head back to Colorado National Monument and hike up No Thoroughfare Canyon to the first waterfall. It would be one mile up a ravine/creek bed and take a few hours. Plus hopefully see a few birds on the way.
The habitat wouldn’t vary much and it ended up not being real birdy, but I had a nice hike.
Gambel’s Quails were calling to start the day again. Along with Mourning Doves cooing. And for the fifth straight day I think Black-throated Sparrows were the first birds to come and check me out. Plus the rabbits were all over the place. (Unlike Rabbitt Valley)
Plumbeous Vireos were the most numerous bird going up the trail with a pair in about every cluster of Cottonwood trees. eBird even made me confirm the quantity – 8.
One of the neater things on the trail was a rock outcropping that must have had White-throated Swifts nesting. They were constantly flying in and out of the rocks. Perched at the base if the rocks were some juvenile Red-tailed Hawks that called the whole time I was walking by.
A little farther past the outcropping I heard a distant caw. At first I thought it was Common Ravens since they had been flying around earlier. But the closer the noise got I could tell they were Pinyon Jays! After not getting good looks the day before I was hoping they would stay out in the open in the narrow ravine. Finally a group of three came down the side of the cliff and one actually stayed out in the open while the other two hid.
So I finally got good looks at a Pinyon Jay.
I finally reached the waterfall, which turned out not to be a waterfall in the dry season. But I ran into a park volunteer who said the next waterfall was about another mile. I hadn’t planned going that far and hadn’t brought enough water. But he brought plenty of extra water in his backpack for people that went up the trail in sandals, no sunscreen, and with no water. So he gave me a bottle and I carried on. I really didn’t expect more birds but felt like hiking.
The walk to the second waterfall was about the same walk as to the first. Except the ravine narrowed and there were even less birds as the day heated up. But I ran into another hiker who said that his buddy was hiking in from the backside to meet him. This was also government land and was higher elevation. I ran into him later and he never did meet up with his friend. Listening to him I think the guy was lost.
The hike back down was uneventful. It was late morning so I decided to try the higher elevation outside of the park. I am glad I did because I finally came across a Juniper Titmouse. A bird I really shouldn’t have missed on the trip.
With a rare storm approaching and not wanting to get caught up on the ridge, I called it a day.
Birding Rabbit Valley was exciting in a different way than the previous Western Colorado habitats. I had never birded a strictly semi-arid environment so the birding would be different than the other days.
I left the motel at 5AM to be at Rabbit Valley by 5:30, a 25 minute drive almost to the Utah border, to listen for Common Poorwill and Common Nighthawk. The area is a typical sagebrush area with sparse pinyon and junipers mixed in with the sagebrush. It was as quiet as previous days so I should have heard either species if they had been calling. But no luck. The noise from I-70 could easily be heard, making the day a little different from other days with the constant backdrop of semis. But it felt good being out early.
At dawn around the north entrance there wasn’t much happening except Rock Wrens, Lark Sparrows, and Black-throated Sparrows. So I drove several miles along the north boundary road. Nothing. So I decided to tun around and head back.
I finally saw a red finch that I hoped might be a Cassin’s Finch. I stopped to check it out and it turned out to be a House Finch and it’s flock. But the stop proved very productive as I then heard several other birds. I’m not sure if it was the geographic location, or that the day was finally getting into full swing, or my presence, but the few birds that were there started calling. So I stayed and birded the area for several hours with good results.
The area had more Rock Wren and Black-throated Sparrows plus many more Lark Sparrows. While watching these species I heard a raucous “caw” down the road. Took me a minute but it dawned on me that it was Pinyon Jays heading my way. One of the few birds I really wanted to see on the trip. So I then proceeded to spend probably an hour chasing them around the dry, arid, sagebrush area. They would fly from bush to bush, never giving good looks, and never coming out in the open except to fly. But I did get a few looks and in the chase saw several other species.
A Gray Vireo started calling from the top of a bush giving good looks. Then Sagebrush Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, Say’s Phoebe, and an Ash-throated Flycatcher all appeared at one time or another. And the Lark Sparrows were still thick.
Unlike the previous days I wasn’t at altitude and the day started to warm up quickly. And there was no wind. Hindsight says I should have walked to Rabbit Canyon and spent the day birding in the shade of the canyon. But it would have been a good walk in the hot sun to get to the canyon since it wasn’t accessible by car, 4WD only.
So I headed across to the Interstate to Brewster Ridge were Scott’s Orioles sometimes nest.
The day was not “officially” hot and there wasn’t anything on Brewster’s Ridge except Black-throated Sparrows. I got out and walked for a half hour and didn’t hear anything else.
I then stopped by a local lake that might have birds. Nothing there. And lastly went by a local wetland that had Prairie Dogs.
I then called it an early day at 2PM to go back and catch up on my notes.
As with many things in life the best things turn out much better than you think they will. After reading about the Uncompahgre (Un-com-pah-gray) Plateau in the Colorado County Birding Guide, I was a little apprehensive about going up on the plateau by myself. Especially in a car. Reading the guide made it sound like unless you were well prepared, you might not come back down off the plateau. But far and away this turned out to be the best day of the trip.
In my case, and with apologies to Sam Peckinpah, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, I spent the day Driving the High Country.
But the guide wasn’t entirely incorrect. You can get by easily on a nice, dry day. But you had better come prepared because there are no stores or facilities. The drive is 50 miles of gravel road on government owned land. On the day I saw zero other cars. None. My rental was the only car on the plateau. Everyone else was in pickup trucks or SUV’s. And I bet I could count on three hands (less than 15) the total number of other vehicles I saw on the whole day. So the plateau was mine to bird.
The plateau is situated SW of Grand Junction. To get to the top you have to make several switchbacks up a gravel road going from 5000 to around 9500 feet. Learning from my stop at Loveland Pass I stopped 3 times and birded each stop for 10-15 minutes on the way up. Each time I was a little dizzy but it soon faded. I would walk slowly and bird and it seemed to work out.
At one of the stops I saw a Black-throated Gray Warbler along the side of the road. My only other previous encounter was a fleeting glance several years ago in Oregon. So this was treat.
I also had my only encounter with Mountain Chickadees on the way up. I could immediately tell they weren’t Black-capped from their raspier call. I also had a bird that I thought was a Western Tanager calling but never got a look. So it will stay off the personal list.
And just like that I was at the top of the plateau and I could tell I was somewhere different. It was like going from Indiana to Northern Michigan or Minnesota. The sun just didn’t seem right and the air felt different. The temperature was at least 20 degrees F less than the Grand Valley below (which still meant it was 80F in the afternoon). And it felt great.
The Divide Road runs the center of the plateau and goes 40 miles before you can take a side road and descend back to the valley. Here is a link to a short video on YouTube that a motorcycle rider made “A ride atop the Uncompahgre Plateau“. So the plan was to bird the road for the day and get home late afternoon. With the great habitats I only made it 13 miles. I then had to turn around and come back the way I came. But it was a great 13 miles of varied habitat. From Alpine Meadows to Ponderosa Pines to Aspen Forests and everything in between.
So I spent the day traveling a little bit at a time, parking along side the road, and birding an area for a while. All the while trying to make sure I stopped at the different habitats.
Once I stopped to view the only map posted along the road. While viewing the map my phone chimed I had a message. That startled me in the quiet of the plateau. I had checked earlier and didn’t have service in this remote spot. But I had it there and 4 bars to boot! I never did figure out how I had service out there. I guess you can never get truly away.
Probably the best part of the day was the last stop. I parked the car by an Aspen Grove and hard a distant “caw caw”. I knew I had heard it on the tapes I had listened too so I went into the grove to check it out. I saw a distant gray bird that kept moving. I figured it was the bird that was calling. As I got further and further into the glade I saw a flycatcher who actually stopped long enough for photos.
And the other bird kept calling. And then something rose up out of the tall grass and scarred the ##?? !! out of me. As I was walking quickly the other way it dawned on me that it was a fawn. And then I about stepped on its sibling. I should have got a photo but I figured Mom was around and I didn’t want to meet her. And of course then the Caw Caw bird came out in the open. A Clark’s Nutcracker! And the battery in the camera then went dead and the backup battery was in the car a few hundred feet away. Oh well.
After wrapping up at Colorado National Monument I had the choice to either try for cooler (as in temperature) birds at elevation or spend the afternoon at the only large lake in the area. Since a breeze had picked up I figured it wouldn’t be so warm around the lake. I was kinda right.
It took about an hour to get to Fruitgrowers Reservoir outside Delta, CO. I know I said I didn’t want to drive that much but not really many options if I was going to beat the heat. The lake tuned out to be good-sized with absolutely no people around. None. Just like the morning it was quiet but in a different way.
Then I read a sign that explained why. There was to be no water contact by people – no swimming, no fishing, no boating. The lake has a high level of phosphorous pollution and from reading on the internet it has for some time. So why is safe for birds? I don’t know.
But even though it was polluted and it was quiet, there were birds. The lakes’ north end had a road that cut off the lake from a low area that was a large cattail marsh. So I walked the road observing grebes, pelicans, and gulls to one side and blackbirds, coots, and herons on the other side.
The road had very little traffic and it made for a wonderful afternoon. Even in 100F temperature!
And it reminded me of when we lived in Illinois. I have written how I would go to LaSalle Lake almost every summer afternoon and watch the gulls. Often in 90F or higher heat. So this brought back pleasant memories and reminded me how much I like the heat.
And just like those Sunday afternoons of searching through all the Ring-billed Gulls for Laughing Gulls or searching the Caspian Terns for a Royal and usually coming up short, I never could turn a Western Grebe into a Clark’s.
And reaching the end of the road and being out for more than several hours in the heat it was time to head back.
You know one of the reasons I don’t particularly like urban birding is that there is always noise in the background. Always. That is why I go to Atterbury FWA. Usually before 10AM the gun range isn’t open and the National Guard isn’t in full swing yet. So most times it is relatively quiet on a Saturday morning. I can actually hear the birds without the sound of man-made noise in the background.
But Colorado National Monument at dawn on a Sunday morning was quiet. Real quiet. For someone who lives in Indianapolis and not that far from I-65, it was eerie quiet.
And the quiet was GREAT!
At first all I could hear were Gambel’s Quail giving their “ka-KAA-ka” call. No cars. No people. No machines. It was a great way to start the trip.
I picked Colorado National Monument for the first day since it was close to Grand Junction and after driving 5 hours the day before I wanted to stay close to town. So as was to be the norm for the trip I was up by 5, made the days PB&J sandwiches, and was out the door to meet the dawn a little before 6. And the quiet.
So here are some of the Western species I observed if not photographed for the first part of the morning – Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Black-throated Sparrow, Bushtit, Canyon Wren, Common Raven, Gambel’s Quail, Lesser Goldfinch, Say’s Phoebe, and Spotted Towhee.
I then decided to be SUPERMAN and make the climb into Ute Canyon figuring there would be a different variety of birds. It was already approaching 90F and clear. A good day for a hike. And I only ended up seeing Plumbous Vireo and Virginia’s Warbler.
The rest of Colorado National Monument was quiet. And this time I mean birds. I took a few scenic photos and headed out around noon.
1. Unless you don’t have a problem with altitude, or have already adjusted to altitude, don’t attempt to stop and look for birds at 12,000 feet. It is foolhardy since you will spend all your time adjusting to the altitude and not looking for birds. Spend your time at that altitude taking in the scenery and get the heck back down to a lower altitude.
2. The odds of you finding birds – say a White-tailed Ptarmigan – is slim to none anyway. So don’t make yourself sick unless you have adjusted to altitude.
So there you have my 45 minute stop at Loveland Pass – 11,990 feet above sea level. On my trip from Denver to Grand Junction I thought I would stop, take an hour, and look for the White-tailed Ptarmigan that had been reported.
I had been told that drinking water would counter some of the effects of altitude. So I had been drinking water all day. Plus chewing gum which always helps lesson the effect of altitude change. But immediately getting out of the car I thought I was going to fall down. So I stood for a few minutes and held the car. A few minutes later I felt better and since I was there, I might as well take a short walk. I made it a few feet and grabbed the back end of a sports car. Luckily no alarms went off. A few minutes later I could walk fairly normal, abet at a slow pace.
So I spent the rest of the time taken short walks, taking pictures, and listening to one distant bird. Then I figured it was time to get down off this mountain.
I would like to hear if you have had problems like this at altitude.
The plan for the week wasn’t unique – bird the main habitats of the area. But before I headed to Grand Junction I had a day to spend east of Denver.
I had taken a 5:30 AM flight out of Indianapolis that had me birding by 7:30 AM Mounain Time Saturday. The plan for the day was to bird the perimeter road of the airport looking for owls and hawks, then drive east of out into the country for hawks, and then back to a state park reservoir. Wrap it up by 1 PM and then the 4-5 hour drive to Grand Junction.
First, I would like to start by saying I have a new respect for people who blog on a daily basis. Especially ones that blog from vacation or trips. After birding for 11-12 hours every day, I really didn’t feel like writing a post. I kept thinking I would head in early one day after lunch to write, but that didn’t happen. So I didn’t get around to posting as planned. But I kept good written and voice notes to write posts.
Why Western Colorado?
I have been asked this more than a couple of times. To understand just look at a map of the U.S. Sibley has these types of maps in the front of his guides. The U.S. is basically broken down into 3 major regions for birds. The area east of the Rockies, the area between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada’s/Cascades – The Great Basin, and west of the Sierra Nevada’s/Cascades – Pacific Coast. Plus there are also the smaller areas of South Florida, South Texas, Southern Arizona, and Alaska. And Northern Minnesota in the winter should probably added.
I live east of the Rockies and have birded Oregon and Southern California. That left The Great Basin. I could have gone to Salt Lake City, Flagstaff, or Las Vegas for example. But I chose Grand Junction, Colorado, since I could fly from Indianapolis to Denver for $200, rent a car, and be in Grand Junction in 4 hours. The air fare for any of the other destinations would have been more than the airfare and car from Denver. Also the area has many state and federal lands of various altitudes which make for good birding.
Why the middle of June?
If you have been reading this blog you’ll remember I went to South Texas last June. The reason for traveling mid-June is that I try to visit an area at the end of migration but before the local breeders are done calling. By following that plan I can concentrate on the local breeders without the distraction of migrants. Plus it is usually less expensive in June than in July or August when the rates are usually much higher for “normal” vacationers.
I had two concerns about the trip.
First, the average high temperature in Grand Junction in mid-June is clear and almost 90F. That didn’t worry me too much since I like dry heat.
Second, the altitude. Grand Junction is at 4600 feet and some of the areas I planned to bird were over 9000 feet. Headaches and dizziness from altitude had me a lot more worried than the heat.
Otherwise I didn’t have any other concerns. So with the chance to see approximately 40 new species and plenty of new habitat to explore, I headed west.
Next installment: First some birding east of the Rockies.
I still have a few photos from our Texas trip in June 2014. In particular I thought I would share a few photos from an evening outing to a Lowes parking lot.
If you follow this blog you know I’m not into chasing. But we were already staying in McAllen and one of the few reliable spots to see a Green Parakeet in the U.S. is on the north side of McAllen. So I thought I had better go take a look. Even though it felt like chasing.
The time of day to see them is at dusk when they come to roost. In fact, here is how the location is located on an eBird map –
McAllen- Parakeet roost (10th Str. b/w Violet & Dove)
So after dinner one evening my wife, daughter, and I headed to north McAllen. We found out that 10th Str. b/w Violet & Dove is close to a Lowes parking lot. So we parked and waited. It wasn’t long before they came.
While watching the parakeets a couple of local people stopped by and talked about them. They said we should be there in the winter when there were many more. One lady pointed at all the telephone wires and said they would be full. She said the noise from the chatter was unbelievable. That would explain the reported 800 reported at this location on eBird. (We saw 50) It would also explain her saying she liked the parakeets but wished they would move elsewhere!