Colorado – Loveland Pass- Beautiful but Forget it!

I am including this post for a couple of reasons.

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.

Looking back north above the tree line.
Not much growing up here for birds to eat.
Except of course dandelions.
On the trail leading to the summit, a White-tailed Ptarmigan had been reported the week before. I thought about trying for about 2 seconds.
The only bird I heard or saw. Looks sort of like a Song Sparrow but didn’t sound like one. Ideas?
And I couldn’t wait to get back down to I-70, shown in the distance. The famed Eisenhower Tunnel is just to the left.

First, Birding Colorado East of the Rockies

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.

I turned onto Airport Rd. and immediately encountered a wet spot with an American Avocet. What a great way to start the trip!
It know it has to do with the habitats I picked, but this is the first of what seemed to be the most encountered bird of the trip –  Western Meadowlark.
After seeing numerous roadkill and thinking they were rabbits, I encountered a Prairie Dog colony. I guess they weren’t rabbits on the road after all…
Knowing there were Prairie Dogs in the area, I scanned for Burrowing Owls. I found this little guy gazing at the Rockies in the distance.
This group was watching me from just across the road. I would probably have missed them if the previous one hadn’t been up where I could see him. It is hard to realize just how small they are until you see them.
A closer photo of the group. They didn’t move much the whole time I was there. Nor did I hear any calls. But the Prairie Dogs were vocal the whole time. I am not sure what they are watching to my left? Or would they just not return my gaze?
Here is the view from the opposite side of the Burrowing Owl area. Pretty desolate.
The first of many Western Kingbirds. On several previous trips they had been a possibility but I had never seen one. So it was good to finally get to watch them. Very similar acting to Eastern Kingbirds.
Not a good photo but something I hadn’t thought I would encounter on the High Plains. While scanning for hawks a Bald Eagle came flying over. I am no where near water so I am not sure where it is coming or going.
Now this is what I was looking for when I saw the eagle. My one and only Swainson’s Hawk of the trip. I got good looks at it before I remembered to take this photo, which is cropped.
NOHA CO 062015
A little farther down the road I encountered this Northern Harrier hunting over an irrigated field. Now I don’t know if I hadn’t paid that close of attention to the status and distribution charts, but I wasn’t expecting a harrier in this location. Checking later, they are a year-round species in Colorado.
The area 40 miles east of Denver where I was looking for hawks and Lark Buntings. This went on for miles. I did get good looks at a Grasshopper Sparrow and Loggerhead Shrike, but not much else.
After the desolate area, I headed to Barr State Park NE of Denver. There were numerous Western Grebes on the reservoir water, often coming right up to the edge. There were also American White Pelicans in the distance.
In several areas I birded Eurasian Collared-Doves were as numerous as Mourning Doves.
Not a western specialty, but I couldn’t resist adding this photo.  An Eastern Kingbird had built a nest that wasn’t more than 3 feet off the trail around the lake.
And now one of the birds I probably most wanted to see on the trip, a Bullock’s Oriole. This first year male gave the best views while he constantly flew around. The adult males wouldn’t come out for photos. I was struck with how much more orange the Bullock’s have then the Baltimore Oriole.
Another obliging Western Kingbird, though he wouldn’t come out of the shadows.
And with that I headed west. Next installment – a stop at the highest point traveling west on I-70.


Why Western Colorado?

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.

Birding Areas
As you can see that Grand Junction(marked with a star) sits on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.

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.

Grand junction Weather Averages
Averages from the National Weather Service.

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.

There are birds on the other side of the Rockies. Looking west from north of the Denver International Airport. 06/20/15

Next installment: First some birding east of the Rockies.