Colorado Camp


(This 958th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 2, 2009.)



My son beside his Colorado camp


I am most fortunate in my children. Both have done well. My daughter and her husband have a home in El Paso in which my brother claims "you could bivouac the Third Army." And my son and his wife, who live in a normal-sized home in Denver, have a camp built near La Veta in south central Colorado.


I say camp in the sense of those Adirondack camps built by folks like the Rockefellers. My son's is an attractive building in a gated community with 21 homes widely separated over five square miles. You could fit my suburban Buffalo house in the garage.


The camp is built into a mountainside at 8450 feet. It is surrounded by scrub oak, stunted trees, in fact really shrubs that grow to about seven feet. Some pines and spruce rise above this undergrowth. Higher up are slopes of open rock with conifers hanging on precariously.


From a large second level porch you look south across a long valley to more mountain peaks and east at a line of crags along which Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep pick their way. On one cliff face is a golden eagle aerie.


Although we hiked, always on the lookout for rattlesnakes, and rode ATVs around the area, we spent much of the four days I visited on that porch. On one morning my son-in-law pointed out two bear cubs cavorting in a meadow a quarter mile downhill. But the best attraction for me was the beautiful 35-foot blue spruce that grew only about ten yards from where we sat facing its upper branches. That is where I saw a remarkable number of handsome birds we rarely if ever see here in the East.



Mountain Bluebird


Mountain bluebird. Our eastern bluebird is among my favorites, the male with a rich blue unequaled in the bird world and a breast of almost equally rich chestnut-orange. This western cousin is all blue, its blue much softer but still very attractive. A pair nested under the porch and they were regular visitors to the spruce.


Steller's jay. Our blue jay is rarely seen in this part of Colorado. (Locals were very excited when several years ago I found one even further west near Park City, Utah.) The Steller's jay is a striking bird. It looks as though our eastern jay had stuck its head and shoulders in black ink. When I finally got beyond looking at that startling head and crest, I could see that it didn't have the wing bars of our jay and that the blue of the rest of its body was brighter than ours. This bird often perched in the top branches of the spruce from which it liked to stare us down.


Western scrub jay. Easily identified as a jay, this bird looks nothing like the blue jay. It has less blue than ours, gray on its back and belly, dark gray cheeks, and a white throat. Its habits were quite unlike the Steller's jay. It visited the lower branches of the spruce or worked its way through the stunted ashes.


You might think by now that all the western birds are blue and most of them are jays. But other quite differently colored birds also appeared in this spruce.


Spotted towhee. Black with chestnut sides like our eastern towhee but with, as you might expect, white spots on its back.


Bullock's oriole. This is the widespread western replacement for our Baltimore oriole. It has orange extending from the stomach up the side of its head. It appeared only once at mid-height in the spruce.



Black-headed Grosbeak


Black-headed grosbeak. Another orange and black bird, this one with the thick bill that gives it its name. Like the towhee and scrub jay, it spent its time in the lower branches and out in the oaks.


Hammond's flycatcher. Westerners too have trouble distinguishing their empidonax flycatchers. You have to wait for them to sing. Fortunately, I heard this bird's sharp two note chips.


Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Last and indeed least, this is the noisiest hummer, quite similar to our ruby-throated. It alternated with the Steller's jay in the treetop.


That was just one tree. Nearby were ravens, a green-tailed towhee, pine siskins, violet-green swallows and a red-shafted flicker.-- Gerry Rising