North Park and Walden

A view of North Park, east of Walden
Saturday morning we woke up and decided to drive over to the Walden area to do some birding. After a hearty breakfast, we headed out towards Hwy 14 and Poudre Canyon. Tina (our Traverse GPS) took us up through Rist Canyon Road, a nice route with lots of cyclers that saved us a good 15-20 minutes. Only a handful of aspen hinted that the season was changing.

The first stop was the Moose Visitor Center, which we visited last August, arriving after 5PM so couldn't go inside. But we did see lots of hummers and our first Black-headed Grosbeak (female) at the feeders on their porch. This time pouring rain made it impossible to visit the feeders or go on moose patrol on the trails out back. With temperatures in the 40's jolting us into fall, we headed on to Walden for lunch at the River Rock Cafe to warm us up. Meatloaf special followed by a slice of chocolate cake ala mode. A warning about RRC desserts - they are gigantic, serving 3-4. We took home half of our shared single slice of cake!

Click pic to enlarge and read book title under leg
After visiting with a proprietor of the Green Otter Gallery next door, we drove up north skipping the McCallum Field Auto Tour this time, to the North Sand Hills, a popular OHV play place. Still raining we opted not to hike around the dunes, and headed back down to Lake John to try to see some birds.

American Avocet; winter plumage

Mike captured closeup images of some yellow-headed blackbirds and grackles. On the lake we saw lots of Pelicans, Cormorants, Mallards, some Lesser Scaups a pair of grebes far out that we think might have been horned grebes in winter plumage. On our way out, Avocets in their lovely winter plumage and some waders were on the southern edge of Walden Reservoir.

Northern Harrier hunting at Arapaho NWR
The clouds were clearing and the sun was getting low when we drove down to the Arapaho NWR Auto Tour Route. Last year we saw our first Loggerhead Shrike here. The ponds were bustling with the usual assortment of waterfowl, and the occasional Harrier and Kestrel swooped overhead. LBJ's,  defying our beginning birding identification skills, foraging on the edges of the road flushed the flew ahead, seemingly leading our way.

Common Nighthawk
Near the westernmost part of the loop I spotted our first perched Common Nighthawk.  I use the word perched loosely - he was just plopped in the middle of the road like a rock, which he greatly resembled. Demonstrating the value of not being seen, he didn't budge even as Mike approached.

Earlier in the spring at a bend in the road near the end of the NWR Auto Tour, we noticed the strangest looking prairie dogs ever. So unusual were their markings that we initially weren't even sure what they were.

Prairie Dog research area at Arapaho NWR
At the same area today were bright orange cones marking cages all around the prairie dog village. Two guys were walking around checking the cages, so Mike stopped to ask what was going on. A researcher introduced himself as John, from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and explained they were studying the little rodents. Joking that markings were "Lady Clairol" hair dye used to identify individual animals,  John further explained that the dogs were molting, so they were recapturing them temporarily in order to reapply the fur dye, which we later learned is actually Nyanzol D. Mystery solved!

After we got home, we Googled the project and learned the research is headed up by Dr. John Hoogland. An article that originally appeared in the Washington Post gives more information: Far From the Prairie, Professor Makes Waves (scroll down the page to the second story).

A full rainbow over the Refuge near sunset rounded out our mellow day.

Rainbow at Arapho NWR

Bird Banding

Scott Rashid recording a banding at the "Y"
So far this summer we've had three wonderful opportunities to watch local avian expert, Scott Rashid, demonstrate bird banding. Scott is an experienced birder, researcher, bird bander, author, bird rehabilitator, artist/illustrator, and photographer.

One Wednesday evening at a Baldpate Inn Enchanted Evening presentation, we saw how Scott harmlessly traps hummingbirds, bands, weighs, measures, records and releases the tiny little guys. I was thrilled to hold one while he used pincers to attach an incredibly small silver band to the leg.

A just-banded Wilson's Warbler

Two other times we watched a similar presentation at the YMCA of the Rockies, demonstrating how Scott traps birds of all species with nets at a feeder station.

Rather than spoil it by telling you all the details, we encourage you to check out the schedule at the Y and head out there to see for yourself. It's almost impossible not to find yourself smiling at such close encounters with these little feathered friends!

Hopefully the Baldpate will have Scott back next summer as well.

Measuring the tail

Wilson's Warbler about to be released

Katherine about to release "her" bird

Scott explaining how the tail feathers help with identification

Pawnee Buttes Trail

Mike at the trailhead with the Pawnee Buttes in the background
On our second trip to Pawnee National Grassland of the year, we decided to visit the more easterly section and hike out to the Pawnee Buttes. This remote area was a welcome contrast from the traffic and crowds in Estes Park for the Long's Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival and parade.

We chose a route along Route 14 past Ault, then north at County Rd 103 to Keota. From there we zig-zagged northwest across more county dirt roads until we turned off of County Rd 110 to take the southern approach of the loop road to the Pawnee Buttes Trailhead.

[Click on a picture to see a larger version of it.]

We probably didn't see a dozen people all day
Spotting a restroom and parking area, we pulled off at what we thought was the trailhead. We were greeted by small herd of Angus and Black Baldy cows with heifers finding some shade in behind the structure. Finding no sign of a trail, and running out of wisecracks to amuse ourselves about the cows that peeked around the corner of the restroom and generally stared us down, we drove on a little further. The actual trailhead was just around the next bend in the road.

Northern Harrier swooping by
Expecting the Buttes to rise out of total grassy flatness, we were happy to discover the surrounding terrain to be varied and interesting. The wind turbines of Cedar Creek Wind Farm spread across the horizon to the north of the buttes, a jarring juxtaposition of modern with an ancient and otherwise unadulterated landscape. On the trail, a short walk through flat grasslands led up to a sizable and long rocky outcropping, fairly narrow in places, that we hiked up and across, before descending the other side to go out to the Buttes.

The western butte often appears larger, but from the base, they look about the same height. With good reason -- they are within a foot of the same height, about 300 feet above the main elevation of the grasslands. We walked the half mile trail that separates the two buttes, spotting various birds, insects and a few horned lizards along the way. The occasional breeze kept us reasonably comfortable in the increasing afternoon heat, and we were glad to be hiking in September rather than the heat of summer!

Wind turbines at the Cedar Creek Wind Farm

Lots of grasshoppers along the way
After a total of 4 miles of hiking, we were back at the car eating the lunches we'd picked up in Loveland (Subway for Mike, Big City Burrito for Susan). Refueled and rehydrated, we continued along the loop road, passing a few campers and 1 or 2 other trailheads, until we reached the Pawnee Butte Overlook.

Inspired by this new perspective and a desire to see more buttes, we followed a trail towards a knifelike rocky point to the north. The out and back was about 1 1/2 miles mostly along the cliff edges. We watched the sun setting and the moon rising before calling it a day.

Evening light on the Buttes at Moonrise

Long shadows

I forgot to mention earlier that we saw tiny Horned Lizards frequently along the trail. Too cute!