Colorado Impressions

Following my writing workshop at the Rocky Mountain Land Library, I do not return to Colorado Springs directly, but by a circuitous route, which has long become a favorite, as it combines varied landscapes with various nature preserves.

By traveling west on US Highway 24, south on US Highway 285, east on US Highway 160, and north on Interstate 25, I complete a circle and return to our doorstep at the foot of Pikes Peak. To do this 270 mile loop justice, it is best to spend at least two nights, but on this occasion, I am a little pressed for time, and stay out only one. Because I drive until the onset of darkness, and start out again at first light, I opt to sleep in the car in Alamosa’s Walmart Parking Lot, next to campers and trailers, whose drivers don’t want to pay for overnight accommodations either.

Along the way, I sample natural sanctuaries near or in the San Luis Valley, like Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area, Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, and Blanca Wetlands, as well as Lathrop State Park near the Spanish Peaks, all of which make this birder’s heart sing, and I can’t wait to do it again. Here is a sampling of my favorite impressions and encounters. Thank you for your company.

Nach meinem Schreibseminar an der Rocky Mountain Land Library, kehre ich nicht direkt nach Colorado Springs zurück, sondern über verschlungene Wege, die Zugang zu allerlei Landschaften und Naturschutzgebieten verschaffen.

Indem ich verschiedene Bundesstraßen sowie eine Autobahnstrecke kombiniere, vollende ich einen Kreis, und lande wieder vor unserer Haustür im Schatten von Pikes Peak. Um dieser etwa 430 Kilometer langen Rundreise gerecht zu werden, wären zwei Übernachtungen angemessen, aber bei dieser Gelegenheit habe ich nur für eine Zeit. Da ich bis zum Anbruch der Dunkelheit, und bereits wieder vor Sonnenaufgang unterwegs bin, übernachte ich auf einem Walmart Parkplatz im Auto, neben einer Reihe Wohnmobile und Wohnwagen, deren Fahrer auch kein Geld für eine Übernachtung ausgeben wollen.

Entlang der Strecke beschnuppere ich eine Auswahl an Naturschutzgebieten, die das Herz eines jeden Vogelliebhabers höher schlagen lassen. Es folgt eine Selektion meiner Lieblingseindrücke und –begegnungen. Danke für die Begleitung.

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Zum Vergrößern, das Bild bitte anklicken. Um den Titel zu lesen, mit der Maus darüber schweben.

Blessed Birds

As the cranes follow their instincts and fly south in autumn, I, too, followed my urge to undertake a brief trip in the same direction. I wanted to lay eyes on them once again during their stopover in Monte Vista, where they refuel their fat stores, before continuing the journey to their wintering grounds.

I have repeatedly reported about crane encounters; as a matter of fact, my very first blog post was dedicated to the search for them. All my previous forays to Colorado’s San Luis Valley, home to a number of National Wildlife Refuges that are blessed with crane visitations, occurred during the early spring. Not this last one. At the end of a long, dry summer the parched land was swept by fierce fall winds that served as reminders of the conditions responsible for the formation of the famous Great Sand Dunes, propelling soil and dust through the air, and bending blades of grass and boughs of trees.

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Not the best circumstances for fruitful birding, but not only did I get to hear the cranes’ guttural vocalizations, so evocative of distant dates and destinations, I also spent a few hours in the company of these mythical creatures, who have long inspired awe and love in humans, this human included.

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Birds of Ages

During one’s short stint on our blue planet, some days stand out because of sadness and pain, others for the joy they bring. As humans we are privileged to witness natural phenomena likely to give wing to our imagination. Colorado’s San Luis Valley with its stunning scenery happens to be the stage where, for eons, the twice annual migration of the Rocky Mountain population of Sandhill Cranes to and from their summer breeding grounds takes place. In March of this year, I was again fortunate enough to immerse myself in this spectacle. Unlike a previous time, my hopes were not disappointed.

Between 18 and 25 thousand cranes might appear in any given year near the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge (my 18 to 25 thousand reasons to keep returning). The vast majority are Greater Sandhill Cranes, not easily distinguished from their slightly smaller Lesser and Canadian cousins. On their way to the Greater Yellowstone area where they will raise the next generation, they pause between the middle of February and beginning of April to eat, eat, eat. On the refuge, fields of barley and wheat are mowed to coincide with their arrival, and the cranes obligingly gather early in the morning and again before sunset to fill their tummies. The feeding fields are wonderful places to observe these big birds, with their lanky limbs and crimson caps.

Not immediately obvious, their myriad numbers are composed of families, consisting of an adult pair and last year’s offspring (typically one). Mating for life, which can span two to three decades, spring feelings for one another are expressed by droll dances whose elements include hops of varying height, flaps of wings that span up to 78 inches, and contortions of long necks. After spending the winter with their descendants in the vicinity of New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and undertaking spring migration together, the juvenile is forced out by its parents, to fend for itself, until it starts its own family, between the ages of two and seven.

Full of commotion and commingling, these gatherings are furthermore sites of characteristic concerts. Each arriving or departing group of cranes is accompanied by guttural sounds unlike any others, emanating from long, coiled tracheas that transform the tones and attach to them an otherworldly quality. Even when the feathery hordes disperse to wet meadows or other mid-day destinations, their calls permeate the air. Across many miles, the awed spectator is never out of earshot of the vocalizations that evoke ancient history. For 2.5 million years these living relics and their ancestors have witnessed the earth’s ups and downs, and if we knew how to listen to their stories, we might learn valuable lessons about life, love, and loss.

Colorado’s Famous Valley

A topographic map of Colorado shows several high mountain valleys. Three of them are called “parks”, from the French trappers’ appellation “parques”, because of the plenitude of huntable animals reminiscent of their homeland parks stocked with game. They are aptly named North, Middle, and South Parks. South of South Park, a fourth bears the name San Luis Valley, after Colorado’s oldest continuously occupied town, San Luis, founded in 1851.

Visualize a wide-open basin at about 7600 feet elevation, ringed by mountain ranges along each horizon, dominated by the isolated Mount Blanca Massif (with three fourteeners, of which Mount Blanca is the tallest, and the fourth highest of Colorado’s 53 peaks that exceed 14,000 feet), and baldachined with a sky that redefines the meaning of immense. The sheer size of the San Luis Valley (8000 square miles) as well as the seeming endlessness of the firmament put our apparently important everyday concerns into perspective and invite one’s gaze and mind to wander.

Mount Blanca Massif seen from Smith Reservoir which was still frozen not so long ago

First signs of spring are visible

Used for centuries by American Indians, settled first by Mexicans who became US citizens after the US-Mexican War (1846-1848), the expanse also beckoned European Americans. Some succeeded in making a living, many did not. Abandoned homesteads are reminders of the exigencies of life in a high desert.

Home to breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, it is also one of our state’s agricultural regions, specializing in barley, potatoes, and head lettuce. Much of the land is used for grazing livestock, and short are the intervals of time when one does not see cattle or horses, either within fences, or without.

The Rio Grande, from its beginning in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, to its termination in the Gulf of Mexico, together with its tributaries, is the source of most water used for irrigation, aided by high groundwater levels. Here as elsewhere, the liquid element that equals life has always induced travel and commerce.

Bridge over the Rio Grande in Alamosa, the commercial center of the San Luis Valley

My repeated journeys to the “Valley” have multiple motivations. Its fascinating geology and scenery alone might be incentive enough. Its unique Great Sand Dunes have summoned me repeatedly, like others before me. Read about one of my previous visits here. In next week’s post I will share several thousand more reasons why I keep returning.

A Sandy World

Whenever my voyages take me through southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, I can’t resist the beckoning of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. Regardless of the number of previous visits, the beauty of its unique landscape attracts me time and again. This was the case in early April 2016, during my return trip to Colorado Springs from Monte Vista, where I had gone in search of Sandhill Cranes.

Wind in the San Luis Valley is not unusual, but on this particular day, nature seemed bent on demonstrating the conditions which led to the dunes’ formation. A strong southwesterly whirled up dirt and dust and blew it to the northeast, draping a hazy veil across the sky. In clear and calm weather, the mounds of sand can be seen from miles away, but on this occasion, they were only visible once I neared the entrance of the park on the 16 mile road leading north from Colorado Highway 160. The sinuous shapes of sand appeared like a mirage behind the curtain of swirling soil, beneath the white clouds adrift in a cerulean sky, and before the backdrop of the snow-laced Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Nearly dry Medano Creek Bed

Nearly dry Medano Creek Bed

This early in the year, intermittent Medano Creek on the southern fringe of the dune field, conduit of the mountains’ snowmelt, was nary a trickle, and I crossed it without soaking my toes. Not many visitors were about on this windy weekday, but we were in for a blast. I longingly thought of my bandana at home, which would have served well as a protective mask, but a t-shirt had to function in its stead. Despite my best attempt, its fabric flailed in the gusts, allowing grainy matter to make it into every exposed orifice, and underneath my clothes. Upon the High Dune at nearly 700 feet, I was assailed by horizontal barbs. So vehement were the squalls, I was barely able to stand up straight. Only several feet below the crest could I find enough relief to take in the views—the sensuous, skin-colored curves of the dunes, the vastness of the San Luis Valley, fringed by the distant San Juan Mountains, the craggy ridge of the Sangres behind me. Whereas most humans struggled against these inhospitable conditions, ravens were in their element, riding the wind like a roller-coaster, screaming their delight into the air, reminding me to make the best of what each day brings.

Sand Dunes with San Juan Mountains in the distance

Sand Dunes with San Juan Mountains in the distance

Back at the car, under my sunglasses a ring of sand encircled my eyes; my nostrils, ear canals and mouth felt gritty; and I emptied out heaps of silt from my shoes, socks, and pockets. Later, at home, kernels covered the shower floor before spinning down the drain, recalling one of Colorado’s most unusual landmarks, making me look forward to my next excursion there.

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Monte Vista

The spring and fall migrations of Sandhill Cranes through Colorado’s San Luis Valley is one of our state’s highly anticipated spectacles. In March 2011, my family and I witnessed it for the first time, during the annual Crane Festival, and I returned again in 2014. On that occasion, I experienced the gathering of thousands of these magnificent birds on a field for the night. Their raucous evening arrival and morning departure left an indelible impression, and earlier this year, I set out for that destination again, hoping to spend more time in their presence.

Sandhill Cranes

By all accounts, the migrants stop over at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge between the middle of February and April. As I approached Monte Vista on Colorado Highway 160 in early April, about three weeks later than during my previous trips, I knew that I was pushing my luck. I noticed several smoke-like puffs in an otherwise blue sky, a sure signs of a flotilla of cranes. The thought crossed my mind that these might be the last ones leaving for their breeding grounds in northern latitudes. My fear worsened when I saw no cranes along the 2.5 mile auto-loop inside the refuge, and nearby pull-outs, but was assuaged when their characteristic laryngeal trill reached my ears, and I beheld a few dozen circling in the sky. After a survey of their previous roosting site revealed not a single representative, neither in the evening, nor on the following morning, I knew I had come too late to witness their multitude. Apart from occasional small flocks of cranes riding the thermals, I only detected a few lone individuals in a field. Alas, even those were too distant to capture crisply on camera. Somehow, even though these long-legged, long-billed, legendary birds, whose fossil records date back at least 2.5 million years, had been my primary purpose in returning to this part of our state, I was not overly dejected since I soon discovered other wonders to explore.

At first glance, the refuge appeared dormant this early in the season, dressed in muted yellows, browns and reds. Desiccated stalks of cattails and sagebrush, and leafless willow bushes and trees didn’t speak of spring, even though occasional green shoots in the marshes and ponds that make up a vast portion of the refuge whispered of flora’s springtime awakening. Not so the fauna, which was already wide-awake, and very audible. The part- and full-time denizens who call the refuge home were not deterred by the still chilly temperatures at night, which ranged from the teens to low thirties, or by the absence of floral lushness, and their sheer numbers and exuberance more than compensated for any sense of loss I felt at having arrived too late for the cranes’ migration. A herd of deer ranged among the sagebrush at dusk and dawn, chipmunks scurried from one cover to the next, and a few rabbits bounded through the brush. A sleek and striking Long-tailed Weasel was so intent on capturing a chipmunk that it ignored my proximity. Sadly for the chipmunk, the weasel succeeded.

Long-Tailed Weasel

Long-Tailed Weasel

Other fascinating animals notwithstanding, I dedicated most of my time to the observation of feathered beings. Among the most numerous were Red-winged Blackbirds, well known to me from my home along Colorado’s Front Range. They were as flashy as ever, but were outdone, if not in number, at least in appearance, and whimsical behavior, by their cousins, Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The males’ conspicuous yellow heads, black bodies and white wing patches stood out among the cattails. Gregarious and garrulous, their blaring and surprisingly varied vocalizations are accompanied by hilarious contortions of the entire body. I named them clowns of the marsh, and they rank high on my list of favorite avians.

Yellow-Headed Blackbirds

Yellow-Headed Blackbirds

The blackbirds’ boisterousness was exceeded only by Canada Geese who seemed in a cantankerous mood, defending their chosen nesting sites noisily, and, at times, physically, from perceived or actual intruders. I had never before noticed the expressiveness of the ubiquitous American Coots. Genetically, they are nearer to Sandhill Cranes, than to the flocks of ducks with whom they share habitat and whom they resemble more closely, even though they conjure images of swimming chickens. The copious waterfowl included Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintails, American Wigeons, Lesser Scaups, Redheads, Cinnamon Teals, and Buffleheads, and whatever else I might have missed. Among the shorebirds, the shrill call of Killdeer attracted attention, as did a special activity of American Avocets, namely leap-frogging, or, in their case, leap-avoceting, which looks as funny as it sounds. Diminutive Marsh Wrens went about their business among the cattails busily and vociferously, possibly building nests. Song Sparrows flitted along the marsh edges and delighted with their cheerful songs. Horned Owls broadcast their hoots in the morning and evening, Northern harriers and Red-tailed Hawks were engaged in hunting during the day. In the graying light following sunset, a Short-eared Owl alighted on a post to survey its surroundings for a bite to eat.

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

Above this near-constant background of sounds and commotion, I was still able to discern one of my favorite chants—the heart-warming melody of the Western Meadowlark.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

I am no longer disappointed about the paucity of cranes at Monte Vista as it freed me to focus on details which might otherwise have escaped me. The wildlife refuge was teeming with a beautiful array of creatures with whom I shared a few precious days, and even though I didn’t find what I came looking for, I discovered so much more.

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