On Friday morning I made my third visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in almost a year. This time I was with mom and Steve and their friend Sharon.
At this time of year, in the summer, visitors have to reserve an entry time (this is a very popular National Park). Our time was between nine and ten AM.
Our first stop, just west of the Fall River Entrance, was Sheep Lakes. Here we scanned the meadows and lakes for bighorn sheep, moose, and elk. We saw none. So after a sketch (featured sketch), we moved on.
We then climbed up Trail Ridge Road towards the Alpine Visitor Center. A few miles up we encountered many cars pulled off the road and people looking off to our left. This meant only one thing: large mammals. In this case a moose cow and calf!
Some of our party got fair to no looks at the moose, as the world’s largest deer disappeared into the trees. We continued climbing up towards the highest point of the road at 12, 183 feet. But before we got there we pulled over at Rock Cut to see my favorite mammal of the Rocky Mountains.
This is not a black bear, elk, moose, bighorn sheep or even the yellow-bellied marmot. This is the endearingly cute if not edging toward extinction pika (Ochotona princeps). The pull out at Rock Cut did not disappoint, we saw marmot and pika.
We had missed the all-white-bird-in-an-all-whire-landscape on April 5 and I was back in July at 11,600 feet to find the master of camouflage, the white-tailed ptarmigan.
This bird encounter in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado was to be one of my most memorable and perhaps my most personal.
We headed out on the Medicine Bow Bend trail under clear skies. The air was a bit thin for a sea leveler of the Coast Range like me but the air was not as thin as birding in the Andes at 13,000 feet looking for Andean condor.
We were in the Alpine Tundra of the high Rocky Mountains, above tree level where all flora had a stunted necessity because of the extreme conditions of high elevations coupled with a very short growing season.
We were ten minutes into our search along the trail when we heard the “ku-kurii” call somewhere upslope.
“Ptarmigan!” Carl said with joy mixed with relief.
All eyes scanned the slope, where a ptarmigan can very much resemble a small rock in an environment strewn with small rocks!
Near the top of the ridge, Carl spotted a male ptarmigan, that looked very much like a rock. We trekked upslope to get a closer look. As it turns out, white-tailed ptarmigan are not so wary of humans, despite the fact that they are hunted as a game bird, but not here in Rocky Mountain N. P.
The ptarmigan flew downslope, revealing it’s all white wings. We all got eyes on it and then it promptly disappeared. Carl headed upslope in a round about manner but he couldn’t find the master of disguises. I scampered up to Carl’s position and scanned downslope only to find that Carl had walked right past him. The ptarmigan was sitting right next to a rock, looking very much like a rock.
This male ptarmigan was banded on both of it’s feathered feet that bore the number 47.
I pulled out my sketchbook and we where close enough for me to get a quick sketch in.
We laid low and got amazing looks at the male, #47 by it’s leg bands. He was not focused on us, although we were very much focused on him, but his attention was drawn downslope. Soon the call of another male just down slope told us that we where at the border of a bird dispute where two territories come together.
A male from downslope flew up to where our bird was perched. What followed was a short flighted chase. The male ptarmigans land and both birds faced each other and boxed with their white wings. After the short conflict, the invading male turned tail, and flew back downslope to his territory.