The First Days of Camp Colorado

Lifers denoted by Bold

This summer, I was given the opportunity to travel to Colorado and attend the ABA’s Camp Colorado run out of Estes Park. It was a brilliant opportunity to explore Colorado’s bird life more thoroughly than I had been able to before and would also get me some lifers.

So, in July, I caught a plane out of Pittsburgh to Denver, Colorado where I met up with the counselors leading the camp, Jen Brumfield, Bill Schmoker, Raymond van Buskirk, and Jennie Duberstein.

While waiting for other campers to fly in, a few of the other campers and I walked over to one of the nearby windows in the airport and tried to spot the first few birds of the camp. We were successful getting cliff swallow, house finch, and our first truly western bird: a western kingbird.

When most of the campers arrived, we loaded up the two vans which we would be using during the week and started the drive up to Estes Park and the YMCA of the Rockies where we would be staying.

The drive gave us time to meet the other campers as well as to spot some of the more common western species. It also allowed us to see some of the habitats in which we would be birding during the week as we passed through the lowlands, into the foothills, and then up into the mountains themselves. A light drizzle and low-hanging clouds prevented us from seeing the mountains well as we approached them (and even when we were in them), but the nearby scenery was still rather lovely and held a number of birds which were lifers for some of the other campers.

In the grasslands surrounding Denver, we got our first looks at Brewer’s blackbirds, western meadowlarks, and Swainson’s hawks as well as a flock of American white pelicans circling over a small lake. Entering the foothills around Lyons, the habitat began to shift into something more montane and the birds changed as well. Here we got our first sightings of white-throated swift, violet-green swallow, and (a nice bird for the drive) a single lazuli bunting.

At the end of the very beautiful drive, we arrived at the YMCA of the Rockies. Now, a point of clarification. This YMCA is not like traditional YMCA and sits instead on a large, wild property, that holds a large amount of bird life. As we pulled up and got out of the vans, we spotted mountain bluebirds, black-billed magpies, and heard the omnipresent wing buzz of broad-tailed hummingbirds.

We met some of the campers who had already arrived and then walked over to the dorm in which we all would be staying. On the way over, we looked out for more wildlife and I was chuffed to get my first life mammal of the trip, a group of Wyoming ground squirrels.

Wyoming Ground Squirrels

Wyoming Ground Squirrels

We also had a broad-tailed hummingbird that was very reliably being seen and letting close views on the top of a sapling right next to the sidewalk.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

After we were assigned our dormmates and had some time to unpack some of our luggage and get situated, we all met in the front of the dorm to do some birding before dinner. However, the birding started as soon as we stepped outside for we were quickly alerted to the presence of a northern goshawk sitting on the ground hunting ground squirrels. It was soon accidentally flushed by some people who didn’t realize it was there but we were given amazing views in flight. Even better, as we waited for the other campers to get there, a prairie falcon flew in and strafed the same field that the goshawk had been in, giving us all great views.

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon

When everyone had assembled, we hiked to the riparian area behind the dorm in hopes of some new birds. We were not disapointed and were able to hear a MacGillivray’s warbler as well as see a couple of green-tailed towhees. The towhee had been what I had predicted before the trip would be my first lifer. However, I hadn’t counted on getting goshawk that early and so was just barely off. I also saw the first least chipmunk of the trip.

The rain picked up steadily while we were birding (why is it that rain seems to follow me to every birding camp I do??) and so we returned to the dorms and then went from there to the mess hall for dinner.

After dinner, we returned to the dorm where we heard a talk about the ecosystems of Colorado given by Bill Schmoker. It was a great introduction to the area in which we would be birding throughout the week.

After that, we were all tired and headed to our dorm rooms to sleep before birding in the morning. However, one important thing did happen later that night which was that my dormroom decided to keep a yard list of birds seen from our dorm room window during the course of the week. That night we got the first few additions to it including some violet-green swallows nesting under the eave of the roof.

The next morning was to be our first time truly birding during the camp. Our destination was the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park where among other things we were hoping to find American dippers and three-toed woodpeckers.

However, we were once again distracted as soon as we walked out of the dorms, this time by a yellow-headed blackbird which had somehow made it up to the elevation that we were at, despite the fact that there was no yellow-headed blackbird habitat anywhere near us.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

After a quick breakfast, we loaded the vans (and spotted a Uinta chipmunk in the process) and drove towards Wild Basin. On the drive over, we spotted the first Stellar’s jay of the trip but other than that it was pretty quiet. However, bird activity picked up almost as soon as we arrived at Wild Basin. Before we had even left the parking lot, we had already heard hermit thrush, cordilleran flycatcher, western tanager, and black-headed grosbeak. Starting to walk the trail, we spotted the first gray-headed junco of the trip, singing away from the top of a ponderosa.

Scenery at Wild Basin

Scenery at Wild Basin

Mountain chickadee called around us as we hiked farther up the trail and a Townsend’s solitaire gave its pinging call. We also came across a MacGillivray’s warbler nest and were able to get rather good looks at both birds.

MacGillivray's Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

We also got rather good looks at a number of “Audubon’s” yellow-rumped warblers along the trail. Although this is the same species as the Myrtles we get out east, they were still great to see as they really do look rather different (and nicer in my opinion).

“Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler

We were also happy to come across a Swainson’s thrush at a nest as this not a bad bird for the area.

The trail became quieter as we continued up and we began to lose faith in finding either three-toed woodpecker or dipper. However, just as we were about to turn around, a red-naped sapsucker which flew into a dead tree for a couple of seconds as well as a close view of a Townsend’s solitaire lifted spirits a bit.

Townsend's Solitaire

Townsend’s Solitaire

Before turning around, we spotted to rest a little bit. We were all glad we did for the sun began to come out as the clouds dispersed a bit and a VERY accommodating golden-mantled ground squirrel appeared and wandered around us for a few minutes, seemingly completely uncaring that we all were there.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

The return trip down the trail, we were very happy to locate one of our targets for the day: American dipper. About halfway back to the vans, we were happy to encounter one foraging in the rapids of the stream bordering the trail. The water level was much higher and running much faster than normal due to the recent rain but the dipper didn’t seem to mind and gave us quite close views as it bobbed and dipped in the stream.

American Dipper

American Dipper

American Dipper

American Dipper

While this dipper was not a lifer, my life bird had given far less than satisfactory views and consequently I was pleased to get such good views (although I have gotten even better views of white-throated dipper in Yorkshire).

Audubon's Warbler

Audubon’s Warbler

When we returned to the YMCA, we discovered that one of the yellow-headed blackbirds from that morning (by this point we had dubbed him “Joel”) was hanging out in the parking lot and was letting people come extremely close to him, giving great photographic opportunities.



We then split into two groups to attend workshops on either photography or field sketching. I chose photography that day and thoroughly enjoyed the talk which was given by Bill Schmoker. Just as we were finishing up however, we heard word from the field sketching group that they had located two immature male Williamson’s sapsuckers a short walk from where we were. As it would have been a lifer for many, we set out immediately for where they were.

Sure enough, we found the rest of the camp getting great views at two very relaxed Williamson’s sapsuckers. An added bonus appeared in the form of a dusky flycatcher which called and gave brief looks; both of these birds being a testament to the good birding to be had around the YMCA property.

By that time, it was time for dinner after which we retired to our dorm to work on our yardlist, hoping for better weather the next day as it would mean that we would be going up to the tundra, a trip which I had been looking forward to ever since I first registered for camp.

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