Imagine yourself on a long day hike up to an alpine lake. You start out amongst flowering choke cherry and serviceberry shrubs, travel through lush aspens, push on through snow in the shady spruce and fir forests, and finally arrive at a series of spectacular alpine meadows graced by an azure blue lake. Diverse terrain and vegetation lends itself to a diversity of birds. What birds are we likely to see along the way?
Have you ever been hiking along, and hear a loud rustling of dry leaves coming from the ground in a thicket of shrubs? Stand motionless for a few moments and you might get to spy on a beautiful songbird called a towhee. Towhees forage on the ground, and characteristically double-scratch back and forth with their feet in the forest litter to reveal insects and seeds.
Towhees commonly run on the ground, and when they fly, it’s generally to a low perch of ten feet or less. We have two species of towhees that summer here in Eagle County. The spotted towhee has an all black head, a black back and tail with white spots, contrasting burnt orange sides, and dark red eyes. I often see the green-tailed towhee perched in a shrub about five feet high, singing loud and clear. It has an olive green cast to its back and tail, a bright white throat, and a chestnut red colored crown.
A bit further up the trail we come to some small grassy clearings adjacent to aspen and pine forests. These are excellent strutting ground for the mating displays of the blue grouse. The male fans out its tail, and struts around proudly to showcase his goods to the ladies. Often you’ll hear a subtle deep thumping bass, “boom, boom, boom,” which is the sound of the male hooting. Males also possess a bare red skin patch on their neck that is highly visible during these mating rituals.
Related to chickens, grouse are often seen on the ground where they feed on seeds, flowers, fruit, and insects- especially grasshoppers. In the winter, needles from conifers are the grouse’s main food source.
Grouse rely on camouflage and sit motionless in the grass or on a tree limb to become invisible to predators. Poor flyers by nature, grouse are as apt to walk into thick vegetation for cover, as they are to fly. When flushed, the grouse’s sudden loud flapping commotion is likely to startle a hiker, but then the viewing is usually quite good, because they fly less than 100 feet away, and perch still on a branch.
As the trail climbs higher, it winds through a cool, damp, shady spruce and fir forest. At just about the time you are considering insect repellent, a loud clear bird song erupts from the treetops above. Starting with a slurred warbling introduction, the bird then clearly sings, “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheese!” Or sometimes the variation, “which witchy, which witchy.” Very difficult to view, the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet flits from branch to branch and gleans insects from the needles and twigs. Sometimes you can see the kinglet hover-glean as it flaps its wings rapidly like a hummingbird, to hover and nab insects from hard-to-reach places near the tips of branches. Grayish overall with a white eye ring and white wing bars, the four inch long kinglet is best recognized by its voice, and its constant movement while finding insects amongst the wind protected foliage.
After slapping a mosquito or two from your leg, a distant, but intriguing flute-like melody drifts through the forest. Yes, it’s the beautiful song of the hermit thrush. The two-part song alternates between a high-pitched starting note followed by a half-dozen musical notes, and then a low-pitched note followed by the series musical of notes. Like its cousin the American robin, the hermit thrush is likely the very first of birds to sing at the first light of day, and the very last to sing as darkness falls. The hermit thrush is about two-thirds the size of a robin, has a clear white eye ring, is brown overall with a reddish tail, and has black dots and stripes running down its creamy chest.
As the trail climbs higher still, the thick sub-alpine forest gives way to open meadows, lush with flowers, leafy plants, and grasses. As you approach tree line, the shorter trees become widely spaced and intermixed with willows that thrive along the numerous streamlets that emerge from the melting snowfields above. A clear song carries over the open spaces, and announces the presence of the white-crowned sparrow. As you ascend, you will hear them seemingly everywhere around you, as the males establish territories, and attract mates for the upcoming breeding season. The white-crowned sparrow is best recognized by clean back and white stripes on the top of its head. They are always present in summer months as you approach tree line.
The trees become further dwarfed as you climb, and an odd display catches your eye; a songbird comes dropping out of the sky in a downward spiral, “blip-blip, blip-blip, blip-blip,” and abruptly swings upward and lands lightly on the ground. This is the flight display of the American pipit, a bird that exclusively nests in alpine and arctic tundra. If you’re a peak bagger, keep your eyes peeled for this one once you get above timberline.
Finally, there’s the classic year-round resident of the alpine tundra, the highly adapted white-tailed ptarmigan- the only bird to spend both winter and summer above tree line. It occurs sparsely in the very highest elevations in North America. Like the grouse, the plump ptarmigan is a ground bird, and relies heavily on camouflage for protection from predators. Their plumage molts from pure white in winter, to mottled black and brown in summer. Tame by their very nature, it is possible to be two feet away from the bird before it moves and alerts you of its presence.
Here in Eagle County, we are blessed with a variety of elevations and habitats. If you like birds, try to heighten your awareness of them when you are outside by simply listening. Once you locate birds by sound, stay still and observe them. Birds are magical, sometimes fairy-like creatures by which we are always surrounded. By befriending the birds, we increase our connectedness to this stunning landscape that we call home.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.