Solitaire Anyone?…by Brad Marks

Greetings everyone! We are essentially at the midpoint of our winter trip south and I must say this has been quite a productive start to this year’s Average Year efforts (not updated yet, but link here). Ron was able to meet us down here for a week and recently headed back (ironically on the day the FAA grounded all planes). Now Linda and I need to head back to get all the birds we hid from him hehehe. We’ll be moving our base camp soon and that means connectivity may be in jeopardy. While we get that straightened out, I’m going to leave you in Brad’s capable hands to keep you entertained. In case you notice a green tint to this post, that’s due to the fact Brad has managed to tin a bird neither Ron or I have…I’ll let him tell the story.

Take it away Brad!

As you may have guessed, Jan and I have traveled to Colorado a few times recently.  Our daughter lives there so it gives us a very good excuse to frequent Colorado and all it has to offer.  During our visit last spring, we decided to check out some local hiking.  Many of the guide books lists dozens, nay, hundreds of hikes from casual walks to the much more adventurous challenging hikes, some involving ropes and harnesses.  We decided to see what was close by our hotel near Boulder.  After a brief All Trails app search, Jan found Eldorado Canyon State Park.  We first went last April, but Jan was hobbled by an injury and couldn’t hike far.  We headed back this fall to more fully explore.  Once leaving the Boulder area,  the highways turned into county or village roads (no center stripes in some cases) and then very quickly into unimproved roads.  By “unimproved” I mean not paved but graded every now and then.  Oddly enough the roads “improved” a bit once we were inside the park (still not paved though).  We’ve learned from last April not to make the rookie mistake of stopping at the very first pull-off. 

Hit the jump to read more about Brad’s Colorado adventure at Eldorado Canyon State Park!

We headed straight to the back of the park, as far as the roads let you drive, to the visitor center.  One of the best and relatively challenging trails starts right next to the visitor center.  We bundled up (it was October in Colorado after all).  I grabbed the camera and the big glass and we started uphill.  I had not studied at all before the trip and really had no idea what feathered friends to expect.  I had a list from Brian of target subjects (one of which I don’t think really exists).  I was hoping to photograph anything that could fly.  At the time we were the first visitors in the back of the park, so we were first on the trails.  After a mere 50 feet of elevation change, we found our first park sign. 

It warned hikers about mountain lions being spotted in the area; continue at your own risk.  After seeing that sign, I was hoping for bird photos AND a mountain lion photo so we continued on.  The trail was mostly wide open at this point, not much foliage for birds to nest in, or mountain lions to hide in.

As the trail continued to climb, we kept hearing a single note call.  Then a second or two later, an answer.  I don’t think it was an echo because of the narrowness of the canyon and the clarity of the answer note.  It would be quiet again and the same single note would sound, followed by another answer.  The “caller” was to our right somewhere in the increasing tree cover.  The “answer” was coming from somewhere further in the canyon.  Now and then, we’d see a grey streak fly from tree to tree.  As we came around the next corner, Jan’s arm flew up and pointed in the distance and she said “over there.”  I saw this bird sitting on the highest possible branch in the tree.

I took the photo (and it’s not a very good photo), but was disappointed I couldn’t see much detail at all.  The grey-ish bird was about 100 yards away.  I was already at the maximum zoom (750mm equivalent) with harsh lighting; not ideal conditions.  Of course, there is absolutely zero mobile phone coverage deep in the canyon.  I couldn’t even ask a search engine to give me suggestions.  I did not know this at the time, but one of the identifying characteristics of this bird is not its coloring, but a very specific behavior.  Cornell’s says they like to hang out on the top branches of trees.  And that’s precisely where we found them . . . nearly every time.  

By now the granite on the trail was getting seriously chunky, and the trees getting much thicker.  A grey streak landed in the tree right beside us.  Of course, my big lens doesn’t focus much closer than 10 feet, and this bird was within 6-8 feet of us. 

I could have used manual focus, but the bird wasn’t sitting still.  It then hopped to a higher branch and I was able to get a few shots of the underneath just at the inside edge of my focus range.  I think it was trying to taunt me (something about the air speed of a European swallow and coconuts).  Nice to get something, but zero help in identifying who it was.  (I know, I know.  Some of you probably already know what this bird is.  Don’t tell me and ruin the surprise of me finding out what it is at the end.)

Right about then, the noise we had been hearing echoing in the canyon approached.  The “noise” was three hikers, dressed rather gaudily (for visibility I presume) and talking over each other non-stop.  Something about a subway and Central Park.  As they approached, three-wide on the narrow trail, they kept chattering away.  One, the observant one I’m guessing, saw my camera and asked “Are you taking photos?” 

I answered “Yes.” (The smart-ass in me wanted to answer, “No, I’m cross-training.”)

She asked, “What are you taking pictures of?”

I said, “I’m trying to photograph some birds.”  They had all been scared away by this point.

She said, “Oh, well good luck,” and off they went as they cackled on and around the next bend in the trail.  By this time the birds were all gone, including our grey friend in the tree.  Silence.  Nothing but the wind.

We hiked for another 20 minutes or so, still being taunted a second time by all manner of birds just out of reach or visibility.  We’d see something flit between trees, and then it was gone.  Based on the GPS app on my phone, we had climbed to nearly 6600 feet of elevation, roughly 600 feet above the visitor center.  It was right about now that breakfast seemed to be fully absorbed and I was getting hungry, Jan and I started back down. (I think her knee was thankful too.)   Just after the first switchback on the way down, there was a solitary hiker coming up the trail.  He seemed very cheery and after greeting us, he asked if we’d seen any mountain lions today.  I said no, just a few elusive birds.  He mumbled something about that being too bad and went on his cheery way.

As we navigated the boulder path through one of the switchbacks, the grey streak was back.  There was a single chirp (caught mid-chirp in the photo).  Guess where it landed this time?  You’re right!  It landed on the very top sprig of a tree, just outside the reach of my lens.  I could still get a photo, but it wouldn’t be as sharp as I’d like at that distance.  Of course, while slowly moving forward, I took about 150 photos hoping one would be clear enough to help with identification.

It wasn’t until we made it back to the hotel later that I was able to download the photos to a screen larger than 2” across.  I could finally start to see identification marks.  This bird was mostly light grey with a little detail on the wing tips and a white circle around its eye.  I though “Huzzah!”  How hard can it be to identify it?  I found out there are more than a few birds around Colorado with white circles around their eyes.  Eventually, I stumbled on a photo via the internet that happened to look just like one of the photos I took.  I had my identification. 

It was a Townsend’s Solitaire.  The Solitaire is a member of the thrush family, along with the Western Bluebird and American Robin (which I saw in a tree earlier, but would never completely show itself).

According to All About Birds, the Townsend’s Solitaire will sing throughout fall and winter to help establish a territory.  They will then try to find a patch of juniper trees to sustain them through the winter.  One study suggested a single bird would need to eat between 40,000 and 80,000 berries to survive a winter.  They usually nest on the ground but have been known to use nooks or hollows under an overhang to help shelter their nests.

Oh, and the best part is this is a brand new +1 bird for me (and for Intrigued if I’m not mistaken).  Even though Brian is targeting an[other] Average Year, this one helps me get a bit closer to my XXS Year.

Thank you for reading.  Click one of the links if you want to see more Eldorado Canyon or Townsend’s Solitaire photos.

Credits

Thanks again to Jan and Allyson for proofreading and editing.  Thanks to Jan for some of the photos in this article.

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