Colorado Substitutions


(This 901st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 29, 2008.)



A Clark's nutcracker on a roadside sign

in Rocky Mountain National Park


Early in June I spent a week at my son's new wilderness vacation home near La Veta, Colorado, 90 miles south of Denver and less than 40 miles from the New Mexico border. The house is set in the side of a mountain at 8500 feet, only a few hundred feet from where the pines and spruces among stunted oaks give way to open rock. It was very windy except in early mornings. Breathing was not easy but the views were spectacular.


Several mornings mule deer passed a few feet from the house and we had to take in the bird feeder at night to avoid attracting bears. I was told that rattlesnakes are common in the nearby rock scree and we found one run over on the road a few hundred yards below the house.


It was early for wildflowers at this altitude, but in nearby meadow openings there were many white racemes of what I believe are death camus. We also found a lovely clump of blue gentians beside the driveway.


It was interesting to compare the bird life there with ours in Western New York. To my surprise, their commonest bird is the ubiquitous American robin. Its cheery song was always the first I heard when I ventured out each morning. But this was not the only species we share with the Rockies. Crows constantly flew by, taking advantage of the mountain-side updrafts and I also saw and heard a raven, a species regularly seen in our Southern Tier.


The soft calls of local mourning doves were lost in the wind. A male flicker visited an anthill behind the house. Although this is the same species as ours, I could see the red mustache mark that replaces the black of our eastern birds. This bird didn't fly while I was watching or I might have seen its pink wing undersides. That color replaces the yellow that give it the names yellowhammer or yellow-shafted flicker in the East.


Far down the mountain I was surprised to observe a great blue heron wading in a small pond. The only warblers I saw were yellow-rumps.


Those were species we share. More often I found replacement species related to but in most cases quite different from our eastern birds. Here they are:


      Equally fast-flying white-throated swifts substituted for our chimney swifts.


      Our ruby-throated hummingbirds are displaced in the Rockies by broad-tailed hummingbirds. One of these delightful broad-tails buzzed down to light on my hat.


      A dusky flycatcher greeted me one morning with a brief nasal burst. It is one of the Empidonax flycatchers that are so hard to differentiate except by their notes. We have five here in the East: least, willow, alder, Acadian and yellow-bellied. This western species is typical of the chaparral and small trees that surround my son's house.


      Our blue jay is rarely found there. Instead Steller's and pinyon jays fill their niche. They did not yet come to their feeder but they approached to sit atop nearby spruces. (On a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park we other corvids, Clark's nutcrackers and magpies.)


      Although tree swallows occur in the Rockies, the birds around my son's home were the quite similar violet-green swallows. I had to look closely to see their distinctive white cheeks.


      Among the first songs I heard each morning were the hoarse robin-like notes of a tanager. Our scarlet tanagers do not occur there; this was a western tanager. I spent an hour finding this beautiful songster, but the time was well spent. Most of the red of the eastern species is replaced by yellow; only its head remains red.


      I also recognized another cheery song there. It was like that of our rose-breasted grosbeak, but this was the replacement black-headed grosbeak.


      Several towhees appeared in the bushes around the house. Replacing our Eastern towhee were two species: similar looking spotted towhees and very different appearing green-tailed towhees.


      On a fencepost near one of the alpine meadows sat a Western meadowlark, distinguishable from our eastern species only by its very different song. We rarely see this bird here.-- Gerry Rising