Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Bandlands, Mt Rushmore and RMNP

Yesterday we were on the road at 6 AM to make our drive thru Badlands NP (top photo above) and then for a drive-by of Mt Rushmore (middle photo). It was another beautiful day, and we enjoyed ourselves as we wound our way thru the scenery of the Badlands, and then mostly avoided the tourist feel of Mt Rushmore.

We arrived in Ft. Collins about 5 PM, and went to the Star of India for a fine meal. Back in March my sister and I had discovered this restaurant, and liked it very much. So I decided that my wife and I should try it again. I think it was even better a second time. Tandoori chicken, dal mahkani, sag paneer, and nan were all delicious, and actually a bit too much food.

After dinner my wife settled into our motel room, and I started to make the drive up to Cameron Pass. I stopped briefly at the Watson Lake Fish Hatchery to look for lazuli buntings, but found mostly yellow warblers, and lots of bank and northern rough-winged swallows. So I headed on up Rt. 14 to get up near the pass by 10 PM when it was finally dark. Once there, I proceeded to stop every 1/2 mile to play the call of the boreal owl and listen to see if I got any answer. I worked my way up 7 miles to the pass summit, and then repeated the process back over the same 7 miles. It took an hour and 1/2, and no owls responded. It is pretty late in the breeding season for them to be calling so I was not surprised at the result. I also saw not one car or truck during that time. I made the late night drive back to the motel, and was asleep by 1 AM.

5 AM rolled around all too quickly, but we needed to be up that early to make the hour drive up to Rocky Mountain NP, our morning destination for birding. We first parked at the Fern Lake trailhead to check for dusky grouse and then to walk up the trail. Within the 1st quarter mile we had found both macgillivray's and virginia warblers singing. The mac was a new year bird, and the virginia's was a nice find since I had only heard it calling down in Arizona back in May.

We then went back down the road a mile to the Cub Lake trail. We were taking this trail in search of the dusky grouse and also dusky flycatchers. We went about a mile without seeing either, but did find 2 red-naped sapsuckers--a new year bird. We began to backtrack when we met up with a woman and 3 young men to whom we had spoken briefly back at the Fern Lake parking area. The woman was the mother of 2 of the boys, and the 3rd young fellow was a birding friend in from LA. Since there is nothing as good as local intel, we decided to join them as they walked up the trail to Cub Lake.

We soon stopped and one of the boys noticed a raptor circling high above us. We all studied it and saw that it was a goshawk--a fairly secretive and often hard to find bird of deep forests and mountains. This was another new year bird for me and a life bird for 2 of the fellows. We also heard and then saw a dusky flycatcher (new year bird).

As we walked it became obvious thru talking with the mother and observing the young men that these 3 were already exceptionally fine birders. They were also into butterflies and dragon flies. The older brother and the fellow from LA had met as part of the American Birding Association's young birders program in Texas this spring when they competed in the big day event put on by the ABA.

Fairly quickly we had the good fortune to flush a male dusky grouse, and luckily for us it landed nearby. We spent the next 30 minutes watching and photographing it. In the bottom photo above you can see that it partially has its air sacs blown out (remember to click on photo to enlarge). This was the 1st male dusky I had seen--all the others had been females with chicks. It was the day's 5th new bird of the year. It was also a life bird for 2 or 3 of the young men.

As my wife and I walked back to our truck, we both agreed that it was one of the best birding days of my big year. Yes, seeing 5 new year birds was very nice, but it was far more than that. Being able to walk in such a beautiful place, and spend time with those 3 young birders and the mother was what the big year is really all about.

Our morning and yesterday added 26 more new birds for the week, and the 5 new year birds brought the YTD up to 624. The travel map has been updated. Tomorrow my wife flies back home to NC, ready for a break from so many early mornings. A good friend is flying up from Austin to spend the next few days with me. Stay tuned!

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