Autumn cycle takes hold in high country

Filed in Expert Articles, Hiking Articles by on November 10, 2013

TWG_story_hiking05imgI’ve been spending a lot of time hiking up high near and above treeline this summer. It is always fascinating to see the first blue and purple gentians blooming in late summer announcing the onset of autumn. Leaves of alpine plants turn to shades of wine and mustard as snow patches linger in shady nooks. Yes, the cycle of life and weather shifting with the seasons continues with each passing day.

I love to see the leaves of the alpine avens and dwarf willows turn purple-red across the alpine tundra, while beautiful creamy green artic gentians dot the landscape with their cuplike flowers in blossom.

Wonderfully tasty high-elevation blueberries grow ankle high and delight passerbys that happen upon a whiff of the sweet berry fragrance. Take the time to kneel down and fondle through the plants to find the small, but potent hidden berries.

The animals in the high country are busy with final plans before the pending onset of winter. Pikas occasionally run between our legs with little bundles of vegetation hanging from either side of there mouths. They efficiently gather and dry the vegetation, then store it in “hay piles” which last them throughout the winter.

Meanwhile the marmots are fat after a big season of rain and lots of high-country vegetation to forage on throughout the summer. The marmots will soon enter hibernation below ground, and will not rustle again until late spring.

Amazingly, the marmot’s body temperature hovers in the forties, and its heart and respiration rates also stay amazingly low. The marmot’s metabolism efficiently burns fat- reserves enabling it to survive until food is available once again when the snows recede in spring.

Spending time at and near timberline, you come to recognize the familiar species of birds. For instance white-crowned sparrows sing right at treeline, American pipits perform their fluttery diving display, ptarmigans waddle around disguised as rocks. Even an occasional golden eagle, prairie falcon or peregrine may cruise by at high speed.

But this summer I saw and identified rosy finches several times at 13,000 ft. elevation and above. Most people could care less about rosy finches, but they are however among the most difficult of birds to find in Colorado during the summer. I was able to confirm sightings on Mt. Sherman in the Mosquito Range east of Leadville, and more locally on Holy Cross Ridge north of Fancy Pass, seeing them on multiple occasions.

I observed a few things that will make it easier to recognize the rosy finches in the future. First of all they are in flocks that fly in groups both small and large about alpine ridges and tundra landing on rocks or snow. Few other flocking birds occur regularly above treeline.

TWG_story_hiking05bimgSecondly, the rosy finches emit a flight call that sounds similar to a bluebird’s flight call. Finally, when viewed up-close or through binoculars they are drab and mostly non-descript brown, with a small white spot at the base of the bill.

There really is no rosy to speak of, because these are drab colored “brown-capped” rosy finches. This species of rosy finch occurs only in a small geographic area in the Rockies and they are generally found near snow patches.

Over the course of the summer we saw lots of animals above treeline including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, coyote, badger, pine marten, and weasel. The prey species are there because of the vegetation, the carnivores are there because of the meat.

It is not too late to get out on a few last high country hikes and get above treeline to enjoy the colors down below in the valleys as well as across the alpine landscape. Soon snow will blanket the areas above timberline and access will be on skis and snowshoes only until next June. The cycle continues.

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