SW Utah National Parks part I: The Drive (Dec 27-29)

After Christmas we decided to make another trip to the red rocks country of southern Utah. This time Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks were our goals.

Leaving Estes Park on December 27, we took the travel in a leisurely pace, stopping in Breckenridge the first night to wish Steve and Lauren a belated Christmas. Fresh fallen snow sparkling under blue skies made for a beautiful drive all along I-70 the next day.

Click on any photo to see a larger and sharper image.
I-70 heading west

We stopped at Rifle Falls State Park which is about a 30 minute drive from the town of Rifle on I-70. Along with the pretty and accessible waterfalls, hiking trails and lake for boating, fishing and swimming, this park impressed us as a great place to play in the summer, too.

Stopping at snowy and icy Rifle Falls

The late afternoon sun inspired us to take another side trip to Colorado National Monument, south of Fruita. This was our first time driving in from the southern entrance and most of our photos come from the Devils Kitchen through Ute Canyon View areas.

Colorado National Monument view

Looking northwest from a viewpoint in Colorado National Monument

Another view of the canyons of Colorado National Monument

Snow-covered deadwood in CNM

Ending the day at Green River, WY, we were set for an easy drive into Bryce the next day (see Part II).

Red rock formations along I-70, headed west

Kiwi Visitors June 5

We had the pleasure of sharing a little piece of Colorado with visitors from New Zealand early this summer. Angela and Tim stayed one night and took our whirlwind highlights tour of Rocky and Estes Park.

Kiwi visitors, Angela and Tim

Tim especially enjoyed the high alpine experience on Trail Ridge Road where we walked around at an elevation higher than the highest point in New Zealand, Mt Cook.

Angela and Tim enjoying a snowfield along Trail Ridge Road

Angela is a bird lover so along the way we sought out species she wouldn't have an opportunity to see back home, which is just about any bird except the House Sparrow and Mallard!

Great Horned Owl on a cliff in Estes Park

Great Horned Owlet in its nest before fledging

Broad-tailed Hummingbird at the Baldpate Inn

Broad-tailed Hummingbird on its nest

Williamson's Sapsucker

New Zealand comes up a little short on mammals, so we took them to one of the local beaver ponds where the little guys put on a good show.

North American Beaver

Beaver heading to its lodge with dinner

The next day before they headed up to Wyoming, we did a very quick birding tour of the Lake Estes area. They got to see a raven mobbing an immature bald eagle, among other things.

Susan and Angela at Lake Estes

A Raven buzzes an immature Bald Eagle at Lake Estes

The eagle found a better perch

Angela is also an artist and sent us an original drawing of a Pileated Woodpecker in her thank you note. I have collected quite a few of her art cards and enjoy her whimsical interpretations of birds and other species.

Angela's pileated woodpecker art

Angela aka "Lemurkat" has a wonderful blog with many more of her original art cards.

Lily Mountain and Rock Cut

Steve, Susan, and Lauren at the trail head
One of our favorite shorter hikes is Lily Mountain, a somewhat steep 4 mile RT trail. We've shared the summit experience with most people that come for a visit, and had the opportunity to share it with
Susan's son Steve and his girlfriend Lauren this Memorial Day weekend.
Steve on the trail with Twin Sisters in the background

Our strategy to stay out of the National Park on the busy holiday weekend worked out -- we passed only one party on the way up and otherwise had the trail to ourselves, reaching the 9,786' summit at 10AM on Saturday.

Fires in New Mexico blurred the normally crisp 360 degree views up top, but it was great to have the peak to ourselves. It looked like this:

View from the summit of Lily Mountain

Continental Divide view from Lily Mountain summit

When the winds picked up we headed down, passing lots of folks on the way up. It just about always pays to set that alarm clock.

Later the same day we drove up Trail Ridge Road to Rock Cut and explored the rock outcroppings along the Tundra World Nature Trail. Though it was cold and windy, Mike stayed until after sunset, hoping to see unusual light because of the wildfires. The rest of us wimped out and walked back to enjoy a little car picnic of brie and strawberries, veggies and hummus.

Trail Ridge Road and Longs Peak, from Rock Cut

Steve and Lauren at the Mushroom Rocks

The sun sets into the clouds

Family and Birding in New England

Our vision for an extended driving trip to New England morphed, for various reasons, into a shorter trip this year. Southwest Airlines has had some great deals, and we found a direct flight into Manchester, NH so off we went.

An inviting wooded trail in Mine Falls Park in Nashua, NH

Colin Isotti jamming in Mike's cousin Dave and Maria's shop
Mike left a week before me and hung out with friends and family in southern New Hampshire, and had an especially notable time at his cousin's, featuring homebrew and home-grown live music in his cousin Dave's motorcycle shop. Next time I'm going, too!

I joined Mike the next week. We hiked around Mine Falls Park and checked out some other potential birding spots with our dear friend Steve in Nashua.

Lady's Slipper Orchid

The Massabesic Audubon Sanctuary and Horse Hill Nature Preserve bird walks were unproductive, save the Prairie Warbler and Lady's Slipper Orchids.

Prairie Warbler at Mine Falls Park

But the gem of our outings were Plum Island's Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and the Sandy Point State Reservation, where we saw our first Piping Plovers. These busy little guys' conservation status has improved to Near Threatened but the beach was still partially roped off to protect the nesting areas. We managed to see and photograph a handful of them.

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) at Parker River NWR

Grandma with 3 of the 4 Cambridge grandsons
The next stop was Cambridge, Mass. to visit Susan's daughter Ginny and her family. We took our last walk together around Fresh Pond before they move back to Colorado this summer. This has to be our favorite urban birding area -- two years ago we observed a Red-tailed Hawk's nest on a nearby building.

This time Fresh Pond produced a nesting pair of Eastern Screech Owls which our grandsons were excited to point out. The birds have been nesting there for several years and we wondered how many times we walked that path with the owls looking down at us. This time we got to peek up at them! What a treat to see both a grey and rufous morph of this new bird.

Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio)

Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) at Fresh Pond

We also finally got our first look at some Baltimore Orioles along the Fresh Pond trail. Plus one more new one for our list, the Gray Catbird. We knew nothing about the existence of this common eastern bird, so when we first saw one splashing in a puddle my first thought was an American Dipper. Impossible!

The next day we met Ginny and family at the Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary near Worcester, Mass. for a picnic lunch and bird walk.

Boys love frogs!
Broad Meadow Brook is a very nice sanctuary, complete with a brand new children's play area. The visitor center has a large deck with feeders and plenty of seating to relax and enjoy. Mike spotted a Northern Parula from here.

The bird of the day was the Scarlet Tanager, which we saw several times during the day. While watching a female through our big binoculars, I was fortunate to see a male fly in and mate with her! Green frogs were a hit with the boys, especially Paul who stopped at nothing to catch one.

Green Frogs

Northern Parula (Setophaga americana)

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

Onward to Connecticut to spend a long weekend with Mike's son Tony and his family. We met everybody at Jack's little league game and he was the starting pitcher. We got to see a second game and a soccer game before we left, too. Proud Grandpa Mike!

The next day while everyone was at school and work we drove out to Bluff Point State Park in Groton, CT. We heard warblers all around in the tall woods, but were only able to pick out a handful. We have so much to learn about birding!

At the end of Bluff Point is Sandy Beach, a long shell-covered spit where we saw more Piping Plovers (and eggs in fenced in nests), our first Least Terns and American Golden Plovers. And on our way out of Bluff Point we saw our first Eastern Towhee.

Piping Plover on its fenced-in nest

Piping Plover doing the "broken wing" act to distract us away from its nest

Eggs in the Piping Plover nest

Least Tern (Sternula antillarum)

Taking the grandkids bird-watching
We were thrilled that Tony's very active kids took an interest in our birdwatching, and so took them out to Pumpkin Hill Road, a heavily wooded local birding spot. The best show of the morning was hearing and then spotting a Red-bellied Woodpecker. We used our iBird phone app to call the bird, and everyone managed a good look at him before he tired of our game and flew off.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Our birding was about over for the trip and sadly the bird we had most hoped to see, the Pileated Woodpecker, had eluded us. We pulled in the Connecticut Molloy's driveway and just as we got out of the car, camera gear and binoculars still in hand, Mike called out "Pileated Woodpecker!" Unbelievably close, this shy forest bird was in full view drumming on a stump in the next door neighbor's front yard! What a great way to conclude our birding adventures.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

On the plane ride home we worked on the count of our life birds and believe we are up to 262 in North America, 345 total.

Walden and Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse at the lek near Walden, Colorado
Ever since we starting birdwatching, Susan has been very keen to visit a lek, a location where several types of grouse and chickens perform mating dances to impress females during mating season.

We learned of what sounded like a very good Greater Sage-Grouse lek near Walden, Colorado from another birder/photographer friend (thanks Lyn!), so we decided to check it out.

We visited the lek site once in the evening and then on two very early mornings (arriving before first light and using our car as a blind). The grouse put on an excellent show! We saw as many as 47 total birds at once, with 3 or 4 females.

You can click on any picture to see a larger version.

Males trying to impress a female (right)

Male Greater Sage-Grouse showing off his air sacs

The male Great Sage-Grouse mating displays are very dramatic! Lots of strutting around, chasing away less dominant competitors, displaying their elegant tail feathers, puffing up their chests, and then inflating and noisily bouncing their fancy air sacs.

We also did some other birding in the Walden area at the Moose Visitor Center, Hebron Waterfowl Area, Arapaho NWR, and Walden Reservoir. We had a very productive few days!

We had a exceptionally good encounter with Peregrine Falcons (new on our life list) on the road to Delaney Butte. We watched them fly and hunt, interact, and even pose for us on a fence post as Susan shot from the car.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon posing for Susan

Here's looking at YOU! (glad I'm not the prey)

Peregrine Falcon in flight

We also spent two very comfortable and affordable nights at the Antlers Inn in Walden. The food at the River Rock Cafe was excellent, too!

Upstairs parlor at the Antlers Inn in Walden

This was a great little trip and we'll be going back for more birding and maybe moose adventures this summer.

I'll end this post with a really fun picture Susan took of a sage-grouse in flight. It was a quick snapshot that turned into a very cool abstract!