Mount Ida Birthday Hike (Sep 28)

I have to admit, I saw my looming 60th birthday as something of a major milestone. Certainly an age that sounds "old" for me, even though I don't feel much over 35 (and I'm probably in better shape now).

At first, I wanted to have a big party to celebrate with all my friends. Or commiserate. You know, lots of cake and ice cream. And black balloons. And "old guy" over-the-hill jokes made at my expense. :-)

But because we've been so busy this year, we reconsidered the party idea and decided I would most enjoy being outside, hiking to the top of a mountain, preferably one I'd never stood on before.

I thought back to my birthday last year. We were recovering from the Colorado Flood of 2013 and though our house wasn't directly affected, Estes Park's sewer infrastructure was severely damaged, and we were one of 1,900 homes without a flushing toilet for several weeks. So we hit the road to see other parts of Colorado. During this trip I celebrated my 59th birthday outside, photographing the Maroon Bells at sunrise from Maroon Lake, and then hiking with Susan to nearby Crater Lake. It was a fantastic birthday!

Mike at Maroon Bells for Birthday #59 last year

Front Range Pika Project (Aug/Sep)

We love pikas. :-)

American Pika near Crater Lake, Maroon Bells, Colorado

We travel with a stuffed pika named "Petey" on our dashboard and I hike with him in my backpack. He's an American Pika, of course. :-)

Petey Pika on the Alaska Highway

So when I learned about the Front Range Pika Project I knew this was the citizen science project for me. Pika Patrol volunteers hike to specific sites along the Front Range from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, and west about as far as Breckenridge to study the little lagomorphs (they are not rodents!) and their habitat. The first rule for Pika Patrol members is no hiking alone, so I was thrilled that Mike not only agreed to accompany me on pika hikes, but wanted to go through the volunteer training as well.

Play the video above for a promo about the Front Range Pika Project.

Classroom training came first. We learned so many new things about pikas as well as what our duties would be on Pika Patrol. During the training presentation we were moved to see several images donated by the late Dick Orleans. Dick was a local Estes Park photographer, musician, and nature lover who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year, and he too loved pikas.

Front Range Pika Project field training

The primary purpose of the FRPP study is to observe and document the presence or absence of pikas at specified locations over a 10 year period, and note any habitat changes. Pikas can't survive very long in warm temperatures, so climate change is a concern to their survival. We learned to determine the presence of pikas not just by visual or auditory means, but by finding fresh haypiles or scat. In all the years we've been hiking, neither of us had taken note of a pika haypile or knew that the orangey-white marks often seen on alpine tundra rocks are pika latrines.

We were given a handbook with maps, location descriptions, data collection protocols, forms, and other information. We also were given a tape measure to measure talus, and a thermometer to record temperatures.

A pika "latrine" with fresh scat

Next, measurements and characteristics of talus, the pika's habitat, and surrounding area are noted. Current weather conditions are recorded and a few photos of the surrounding vegetation are taken before leaving the site. If fresh scat is found, it is collected for DNA analysis to evaluate pika stress hormone levels.

The second training session was conducted in the field. We met with researchers and about 25 other volunteers at a pika location near Loveland Pass to test our pika finding skills and put into practice the protocols we learned in the classroom. Since most of the study sites are off-trail, GPS route-finding skills were taught.

We were also shown how to enter the data we collected into an observation record at the Pika Project website. Now we were ready to hit the trail.

Field training for FRPP, near Loveland Pass

Our first pika hike was to Bighorn Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. From the Lawn Lake Trailhead, we hiked in a couple miles then bushwhacked our way up through a steep, rocky and thickly forested area before reaching the GPS point in a large talus field.

Susan about to bushwhack up a difficult talus slope on the way up to the Bighorn Mountain pika location

The entire hike was only 5 miles round trip, but the challenging terrain of fallen timbers and slick rocks, combined with 2,500 feet of elevation gain made the walk more difficult. We completed our observations, and were pleased to both hear and see pikas and be able to collect fresh scat samples.

Susan collecting a scat sample from a pika "latrine"

We loved seeing this pika near its haypile

View from our pika location citizen science "laboratory." Chiquita, Ypsilon and Mummy Mountains in background

From this pika location, the summit of Bighorn Mountain was not far, but straight up and I was exhausted from all the bushwhacking. With some encouragement from Mike, I pushed on and it was so worth the extra effort. The broad flat summit was scattered with a few large rocky outcroppings. What a fun place to play and take in the panoramic views from a new perspective!

Panorama from near the Bighorn summit. Mike is a tiny dot at far upper left.

Susan at the Bighorn Mountain summit; you can see Lake Estes and Estes Park above and to her right

Mike uses duct tape to repair the PVC pipe summit register 

Susan heading down. Mt Tileston is above her, with Mummy Mountain at far left.

Our next pika site was at Trap Lake, off of Hwy 14 north of RMNP. This time we enjoyed fall color on the long drive and had only a short walk at the lake to our GPS coordinates. Again, success at finding pikas and collecting scat specimens. We took the long way home through Walden, stopping at the River Rock Cafe at the Antlers Inn for a meal before completing the big loop across Trail Ridge Road back home.

The "parking lot" at Trap Lake on Long Lake Rd, near Hwy 14

Susan on the talus slope above Trap Lake (note road and our car just right of center)

Pika observed near its haypile at the Trap Lake location

Looking up the talus slope above Trap Lake

Mike collects a scat sample
Our most recent pika hike was along the Mount Audubon Trail near Brainard Lake. We were curious about the hike and wondered why we hadn't hiked this beautiful area sooner as it is no further from home than some parts of Rocky.

View along the trail on the way to our Mt Audubon pika location

Susan indicating direction of the camera from our first location; part of our data collection protocol

We ended up visiting two sites on this bluebird day because they were so close together. The second site was especially fun because it gave us a great view of the Longs Peak area looking north, the opposite direction we normally see it from.

Mike arriving at our 2nd pika location for the day; Longs Peak in background

Another spectacular view from our field lab

With the experience of two previous pika hikes under our belts, we completed our work at both sites quickly. Unfortunately we hadn't packed enough water to go on to summit Mount Audubon, but we've added to our ever-growing "next time" list. :-)

Our last view of Longs Peak for the day

We look forward to the end of season party in November and sharing experiences with other volunteers. If you are interested in citizen science, pikas, hiking, or would consider joining the 2015 Pika Patrol, please visit

Ohio and Oregon (September)

In September, after some hikes and pika project hikes, we traveled to some special family events.

First was a party celebrating my parent's 65th wedding anniversary in Ohio, and then Mike's nephew's wedding in Portland. It was great to celebrate with people we don't get to see very often and meet the newest members of the Ebert and Molloy clans.

We also took in a few local attractions during the trip.

We flew first to Lebanon, Tennessee to see my parents and aunt, and drove them to Dayton, Ohio to see almost all of the Ebert clan to celebrate the milestone anniversary.

Mike and George shooting pool in Lebanon

The Ebert Family in Dayton for the 65th Anniversary

The irresistibly cute Vera in Dayton

In Dayton, the Carillon Historical Park was a short walk from our hotel. Too bad we had to leave before the Sunday afternoon concert!

Carillon Historical Park in Dayton

The oldest Eberts toasting the youngest Ebert (photo by Nancy Ebert)

After driving back to Tennessee, we flew to Portland and got to spend time with the Molloy clan, helping to prepare for and attend the wedding.

Flying by Mt Hood on the way in to Portland

Wedding tent setup

The happy bride and groom with Emmett, the newest Molloy

Mike's mom, and two younger brothers, Mark and Glenn

In Portland we visited Washington Park and were pleasantly surprised to find the International Rose Test Garden still in bloom. The Portland Japanese Garden was beautifully peaceful and more subdued than when we saw it in spring bloom (2013).

International Rose Test Garden

Us, with Mark and Debbie and Melissa at the Japanese garden

Japanese Maple

In the rose garden
We also went to the Vaux's Swift Watch in Portland, which we wrote about in a separate story.

Vaux's Swift Watch (Sep 14)

No, they're not bats. But the Vaux's Swifts sure remind me of the Mexican Free-Tailed Bats at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico when they leave their roosts at dusk.

This spectacle of the Vaux's Swifts returning to their roost for the night can be seen in late August and September at several locations along the Northwest Coast. But for some reason the old chimney of Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon draws the largest numbers of the tiny birds. The birds gather in such places to roost in preparation for their mass migration to southern Mexico and points further south.

Chapman Elementary School, Portland, Oregon

We expected to see lots of birds, but were not prepared for the large number of people at Chapman! And not to suggest that birders don't know how to have fun, but it was, surprisingly, an absolute festival atmosphere. On the steep adjacent hillside, folks enjoyed picnic dinners and reclined on blankets while kids were sliding down on large cardboard pieces or playing soccer in the field below.

Cardboard sleds on the hill in front of the spectators

Portland Audubon was there to answer questions at table with information including specimens of a Vaux's Swift, a hummingbird and a bat for comparison. Unfortunately they were sold out of the children's book Swifty's Big Flight which I knew I needed based on title alone. Swifts are more closely related to hummingbirds than to the larger swallows they resemble, and can not perch on branches like most birds.

The swifts can only cling to a vertical surface which, in the absence of a tree hollow, makes the interior of a large chimney a perfect location to spend the night. Unless the chimney is in use. When the Chapman chimney was in service years ago, students and staff at the school agreed to wear jackets inside if needed and delay turning on the heat until the birds left.

Interpretive sign at the school

As we looked around deciding on the best vantage point we noticed that across the street, which had been blocked off to vehicles for the event, an entrepreneurial young boy sat at a table selling cookies and drinks. I love to support such lemonade stand ventures so we walked over. He had me with the blue apron embroidered "Cookie Boy #2" and we selected our treats.

Cookie Boy #2 and his mom, author of Swifty's Big Flight

Then I noticed a copy of Swifty's Big Flight on his table.

"Could we get a copy tonight after all?"
"Yes, you can!"
"Would you like a signed copy?"
"Yes please, Cookie Boy #2."
"Okay I'll get my mom."

How cool, we had stumbled across the author's home! (What happened to Cookie Boy #1? The older brother, now a teenager, had retired.)

After chatting with author Lee Jackson about swifts and what it is like living directly across the street from the annual September crowd scene, we noticed some birds overhead. We moved along to find a great spot at the top of the hill behind most of the crowd. We were next to some photographers with fancy equipment and near the Audubon bird counters. Another man arrived with a tracking device, hoping to locate one of the Vaux's Swifts tagged in Washington.

Time-lapse photographer at left, tracker and counters at right

More and more birds arrived and were loosely circling, but very high overhead even though it was near dusk, time to fly into the chimney to roost for the night. Perched on the edge of the chimney was a Swainson's Hawk, just waiting to pick off his dinner. He hopped around here and there, and with each move the spectators let out collective gasps of anticipation. All the while the swift numbers were growing, as they circled in an ever tighter and darker spiral that floated closer to the chimney to a chorus of excited "OOOHs," and then up and away to disappointed "AWWWs" from the crowd.

Swainson's Hawk perched on the chimney

Finally one brave bird, perhaps Swifty himself, took the downward plunge past the hawk and into the chimney, followed by more and more birds. We couldn't see exactly what happened, but the hawk was gone. The huge flock circled around time after time in a tremendous swirling black avian vortex lasting maybe 10 minutes until the last bird was gone. The crowd cheered and clapped. The official count was around 5,000 - 6,500 birds, a decent number but still only one third of peak counts. Thanks to the hawk, the swifts' entry into the chimney was delayed, concentrating their numbers to create a more dramatic effect.

Vaux's Swifts, circling "their" chimney

The crowds at Chapman Elementary, watching the swifts fly in to their chimney roost

Crowd scene at Chapman

Next time we'll bring binoculars and our telephoto lens. And our dinner. And camp chairs.

Shrine Mountain Hike (Aug 30)

Susan and I mostly hike in our "backyard", Rocky Mountain National Park, but because we have family in other Colorado locations, we sometimes hike something totally new.

In late August, we were staying in Breckenridge and learned about the Shrine Mountain hike, so we decided to check it out. The morning of this last day of August greeted us with a rainbow, so we waited until the afternoon to start.

The morning view from our digs in Breckenridge

The trailhead wasn't far from Breckenridge on Shrine Pass Road, near Vail Pass, and was off an easily navigable gravel/dirt road along I-70. The Shrine Mountain summit is at 11,888 ft and the hike totals about 4.2 miles long with about 650 ft of gain.

The pink line was our track for the hike, starting at Shrine Pass

Even though the skies were cloudy and there was a chance of rain in the forecast, we decided to give it a try, hitting the trail about 2pm.

Hitting the trail

Sure enough just 10 minutes into the hike, the rain began to fall. Rather than turn around, we just put on our rain gear and kept going. Since it was late in the day, there was a steady stream of people returning from this popular hike, and we got some funny looks and comments as we headed on up the trail into the rain.

Mike was happy to have his rain hat on this somewhat muddy hike

The rain was variable and we enjoyed having the trail to ourselves. Mike enjoyed using his new pack, designed for hiking with photography gear, and the waterproof rain fly got its first deployment, keeping the camera gear dry. Since the SLR was packed away more than usual, most of our early shots on the hike were shot with the iPhone.

iPhone panorama from along the trail

We really loved the unusual red rock formations near the summit and some of the late summer wildflowers along the trail.

Along the trail

Mike on the summit

Susan exploring a little beyond the summit

iPhone panorama from the summit

After the hike, we returned to Breckenridge where we went to an Art Festival where Susan's Djembe drumming teacher, friend and musician was playing. It was fun to listen to their excellent instrumental guitar music in Breck.

Skanson & Hansen rocking out in Breckenridge

We enjoyed this hike so much, Mike saw the potential for this hike and summit as a sunrise location, and since the weather the next morning was forecast to be nicer, we planned to get up super early and be on the summit for sunrise.

When the alarm went off about 3 a.m., Susan decided to sleep in, and Mike ended up going back up the mountain alone, hitting the trail in the dark and at the summit was treated to some beautiful light, but not many clouds to add interest. No complaints though. It was a gorgeous morning.

Eastern sky with a couple of stars; viewed from the summit at 5:54am

The hike is so-named because it affords an excellent view of the Mount of the Holy Cross.

Mt Holy Cross, the next morning

View from the summit with the sun coming up

Fireweed at the summit

After the sun came up, I noticed a backpacker had set up his tent on the rocks a little ways north of the summit and I watched for him or her to come out and pose for me. :-)

Can you see the tent and camper standing outside? What a spot to wake up!

Back on the trail

A little ground squirrel gets off the ground for breakfast :-)

The Shrine Mountain trail is said to be one of the finest wildflower hikes in Colorado, and we look forward to proving this to ourselves next summer.

Indian Paintbrush and Lupines were in full bloom everywhere

On the way back to the trailhead

After Mike's sunrise hike we went into town, taking the free gondola up to one of the lodges and had a snack before returning back "home" so Mike could take a nap.

This might be the first time we've done the same 4+ mile hike two days in a row. Very fun way to burn some calories. :-)

Photographic evidence of why getting up early is often worth it!