Southwest Colorado: Birds & Butterflies Jul 16—26, 2008
Posted by Michael O'Brien
By Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis
In Colorado one can witness some of the most breathtaking scenery in North America. During our Southwest Colorado Birds & Butterflies tour we saw much of that scenery—enhanced by a dizzying array of birds, butterflies, and wildflowers. This year's late spring with much snow caused a slight shift in the seasons, particularly at high elevation. We noticed that shift in the brood timing in the birds and butterflies. There were also spectacular wildflowers in the mountains due to the abundance of snowmelt.
We started the first morning less than a mile from our hotel in Denver in the short-grass prairie. Here, in the midst of encroaching human development, we watched a thriving colony of black-tailed prairie dogs with a resident family of Burrowing Owls. Fuzzy owlets perched atop an old prairie dog mound while their parents sat on nearby fence posts with Western Meadowlarks. We continued on to the arid foothills of beautiful Red Rock Park where we saw a number of birds including Western Scrub Jay, Steller's Jay (odd for this lower elevation), Black-capped Chickadee, Canyon Wren, Spotted Towhee, Lazuli Bunting, Bullock's Oriole, White-throated Swift, Violet-green Swallow, and Black-billed Magpie. We managed to get a scope view of an Aphrodite Fritillary before it warmed up and flew off. We caught a glimpse of our first mammal of the trip as a mule deer with a huge rack dashed across the road and up over the hill between the red rocks.
Later in the morning we went over to nearby Apex Park in search of butterflies where highlights included Western Tiger Swallowtails, Two-tailed Swallowtail, Reakirt's Blue, Gray Copper, Coral Hairstreak, Weidemeyer's Admiral, Hackberry Emperor, Taxiles and Delaware skippers, and lots of fritillaries that wouldn't sit still! Traveling west we stopped for lunch at Genesee Park where we found Williamson's Sapsucker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, and Mountain Chickadee. We also saw Abert's squirrel with its tasseled ears, and an American bison (though behind a fence). We made our first stop at a high mountain meadow on our way to Silverthorne. Loveland Pass was full of alpine wildflowers in full bloom. We were reminded of the late spring when we found ourselves in a brief hailstorm. At least we didn't get rained on!
Each subsequent day on this tour was filled with equally wonderful sightings. Each brought us to a different set of habitats, different birds, and different butterflies. At the Blue River in Arapaho National Forest we found an American Dipper foraging at the water's edge, and enjoyed wonderful views of singing Swainson's Thrush, and Fox and Lincoln's sparrows. In the mountain meadows of Boreas Pass we had some fine butterflying with sightings of Phoebus Parnassian; Mustard White; Queen Alexandria's, Scudder's, and Mead's sulphurs; Variable Checkerspot; Common Ringlet; Colorado Alpine; Chryxus and Uhler's arctics; and Draco Skipper. In the sagebrush flatlands around Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, a completely different setting, we found American Avocet, Wilson's Phalarope, Wilson's Snipe, Swainson's Hawk, Great Horned Owl (adult and young!), Sage Thrasher, Brewer's and Vesper sparrows, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Western Meadowlark, along with Garita Skipperling, Pale Swallowtail, and (Lorraine's favorite!) Melissa Blue. Among the Ponderosa Pines at Junction Creek we found Pygmy Nuthatch, Hammond's Flycatcher, Virginia's Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, Townsend's Solitaire, a beautiful perched Red Crossbill (type 5), Pale Swallowtail, Pine White, Colorado Hairstreak, Nais Metalmark, Great Spangled Fritillary, and Northern Cloudywing. At Mesa Verde National Park we marveled at the ruins and along the way saw Juniper Hairstreak and Tailed Copper.
Some of the most breathtaking scenery on our tour loop was on our drive north through the San Juan Mountains, famous for the narrow gauge heritage railroad that runs 46 miles between Durango and Silverton, and also for the Million Dollar Highway from Silverton to Ouray. In Ouray we visited Box Canyon Falls, which afforded us spectacular views of nesting Black Swifts. We experienced more breathtaking scenery, and another completely different habitat, when we visited Escalante Canyon, a rugged, arid canyon with pinyon-juniper hillsides and a cottonwood-lined stream. The most popular find that morning was undoubtedly the family of Chukars we watched cross the road and work their way upslope. We also enjoyed sightings of Black and Say's phoebes, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Rock and Canyon wrens, Western Tanager, Lark Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Becker's Western White, Western Pygmy-Blue, rock squirrel, eastern fence lizard ("southern plateau lizard"), plateau striped whiptail, and a gorgeous yellow-headed collared-lizard.
For another different habitat, and a much cooler environment, we visited the wonderfully cool and lush high mountain meadows of Grand Mesa National Forest. Near the visitor center we saw a perched Bald Eagle (uncommon in Colorado), Clark's Nutcracker, Cassin's Finch, and Pine Grosbeak. The wildflower bloom was the finest that we've seen in years. Among the blooms we observed many butterflies including Large Marble; Banded Hairstreak; Western Tailed-Blue; Coronis, Northwestern, and Mormon fritillaries; Milbert's Tortoiseshell; and Grizzled and Uncas skippers.
Heading east, we visited the spectacular gorge at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Although the birding there was good, with sightings of Dusky Flycatcher, MacGillivray's Warbler, and Green-tailed Towhee, as well as White-throated Swifts and Violet-green Swallows flying in the gorge below us, the butterflying was some of the best of the trip. Highlights included Two-tailed Swallowtail; Blue and Purplish coppers; Behr's, California, and Banded hairstreaks; Great Spangled, Edward's, and Callippe fritillaries; Riding's Satyr; Common Branded-Skipper; and Dun Skippers, many of these in great abundance. At Gunnison, we visited two sites among the rolling sagebrush hills to search for the recently-split and very local Gunnison Sage-Grouse. To our delight, we had success at finding the prime target bird at both sites!
On our final day, we reached the highest elevation of the trip during our visit to Mount Evans. We spent most of our time there above treeline at Summit Lake. Once again we were treated to a peak wildflower bloom and lots of butterflies, but the clear highlight was a superb view of a Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. A short distance down the trail, we scanned the cliffs and found distant groups of bighorn sheep and mountain goats, and watched a Golden Eagle soaring overhead—a classic alpine scene and a great way to end the tour!