Colorado Birdin'
Apr 26-May 2, 2003
(c) Copyrighted by Cyndie Browning 2003

     I got away from Tulsa about 9:00 Saturday morning (Apr 26) and drove straight west on Hwy 412 (the Cimarron Turnpike), turned north at Enid and west at the intersection with Hwy 64, zigzagging my way up toward Cherokee and the
Great Salt Plains the way I always go.  I found clouds of Cliff Swallows (yearbird #1) under and around most of the overpasses along the turnpike, a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds (the BEST Blackbird!) grazing with the cattle where Hwys 60 and 64 intersect, and several Eurasian Collared-Doves right in front of the motel in Cherokee where I planned to return the following Friday to stay during the Oklahoma Ornithological Society annual spring meeting weekend.  I began seeing Snowy and Cattle Egrets by then, too, yearbirds ## 2 and 3, and picked up my first Eastern Kingbird for the year (YB#4) just before I crossed into Kansas.  And as I drove north toward Dodge City, I laughed to see all the Great-tailed Grackles perched on barbed wire fences, looking like so many weathervanes in the brisk easterly wind, heads pointed into the wind, tails fanned out behind it.

     Dodge City is all about railroads and cattle feed lots, not terribly picturesque for all its "Old West" history.  I didn't leave anything there and don't plan to have to go back and get it, neither.  But as I finally reached Hwy 50 in Dodge City and turned west, I began seeing
Swainson's Hawks (YB#5), lots and LOTS of Swainson's Hawks!! probably a dozen of 'em in Kansas alone.  Around Cimarron, just 15 minutes west of Dodge, I stopped to read a historical marker pointing out some ruts of the original Santa Fe Trail on the other side of a small pond (in fact, Hwy 50 follows the Santa Fe Trail for hundreds of miles).  Across the road from this spot was another small pond where I found several families of Canada Geese, their tennis ball-sized goslings just getting their first taste of life on the water.  And here I found my first "exotic" species of the trip, three American Avocets (YB#6).

     Soon thereafter, I crossed into eastern Colorado and I think
Black-billed Magpie (YB#7) was my first or second Colorado species of the trip.  The other two that met me at the stateline were American Crow and another Swainson's Hawk.  And the only other yearbird I got in Colorado that night was Ring-necked Pheasant (YB#8).  But I drove 630 miles that first day, Tulsa OK to Pueblo CO, and it took 12 hours!!!  I didn't get any new KS-birds for all the short distance I was in Kansas, but then I had birded at Quivira NWR in Kansas last year and reaped over 100 species in that one day so even Avocet wasn't a new KS-bird for me.  However, I entered Colorado with only ONE bird on my Co-Bird list:  Black-billed Magpie that I got in 1983 when I visited a girlfriend during her first round of chemotherapy for the Hodgkins Disease that took her life 5 years later.  So by the time I arrived at the Motel 6 in Pueblo, I was utterly exhausted but I'd also racked up a whopping _8_ CO species for the trip and went to bed that night pretty pleased with myself.

     Sunday morning I was up early and promptly added Robins (in the motel parking lot) to my Co-Bird list.  I packed up my stuff and headed over to a place called
Valco Ponds State Wildlife Area in Pueblo that I'd read a lot about on Co-Birds.  There's a whole string of wildlife areas (including the zoo and its adjacent park) there along the Arkansas River that's called the Pueblo River Walk System, and this Valco Ponds SWA is part of it.  (I hadn't realized, until I drove through SE Colorado, that the Arkansas River flows through Oklahoma from that far away, until I crossed and re-crossed over it on the highway at least 4-5 times the night before!!)  I parked my car and proceeded to walk around the several large ponds along the river.  Osprey (YB#9) was one of the first birds I found, and I finally spotted a trio of Wood Ducks (YB#10) in one of the ponds.  (I usually get Wood Ducks at Mohawk Park here in Tulsa in the winter but so far, they had eluded me.)  There were more Magpies than you can shake a stick at out there, and y'know what? I never got tired of seein' em, not in all the 5 days I spent in Colorado.  Also, I got Black-capped Chickadees (YB#11) at the Valco Ponds.  That's as close to THOSE little guys as I've been in two years!

     But for all that the next birds I found weren't yearbirds for me, the best part of Valco Ponds was the flock of Butterbutts (
Yellow-rumped Warblers) that I found in one tree, a mixed batch of Myrtle and Audubon warblers.  I got REEEEALLY good looks at both races and decided the Audubon race was the more striking of the two, especially the males with their brilliant yellow throats above those broad black breasts.  I was surprised that their songs were different (and ALL the males seemed to be singing), but then I'd never had opportunity to see and hear both races in the same tree before!

     I spent maybe an hour wandering around the ponds, trying to see (and never did) a
Bewick's Wren that took up singing everytime I gave up trying to actually SEE him.  I'd sit and wait---nothing!! and then no sooner had I begun walking back to my car than he'd start singing again!  The little sh*t!!   A Yellow Warbler (YB#12) sang high in the trees over my car, a Belted Kingfisher zipped up and down the river like a shuttle on a loom, and Cliff, Barn, and Bank (YB#13) Swallows stitched the air to the ground all around me.

     From Valco, I drove west on Hwy 96, wantin' to get a taste of the mountains southwest of Pueblo instead of just driving up the main highway (Hwy 50, which I'd picked up in Dodge City, KS and followed all the way to Grand Junction).  I found my first
Common Raven (YB#14) soaring high over a canyon as the road dropped away into the valley below.... even its shadow as it passed over my car looked huge!

     When I reached Hwy 67, south of Canon City, I turned north instead of continuing my westerly meander since I'd spent an hour or so at the Valco Ponds and was beginning to worry that if I dawdled any longer, I might not get to G.J. until after dark.  And a funny thing happened on my drive north on Hwy 67.  I came down out of the foothills and found myself looking down on the "super-max" (maximum security) federal prison in Florence.  I've seen a couple stories about this place on The Discovery Channel on TV but when you're actually looking at it, you suddenly realize that it says "
STAY AWAY!!" in a BIG way!!  Well, you know how I am, an innocent in wonderland.  As I drove past the gate into the prison, I noticed a small pond just behind the gate and saw "a couple of ducks" on the water as I cruised by it so I pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and got out with my binocs to look at "the ducks."

     Almost immediately, a guy in a white pickup pulled up in the other lane (heading back the way I'd just come) and asked, "can I help you?"

     "Oh, no," I answered, "there's just a couple o' ducks in the pond and I wanna look at 'em."  He looked at me sorta funny, then drove his truck quickly up to the prison gate and spoke to the guards in there.  They didn't hassle me but they must've wondered what kind of an idiot decides to stop outside a maximum security federal prison to "look at ducks"!!  Alas, all I found were a couple o'
Coots and one yodeling Pied-billed Grebe.  Still, they were new for my Co-Bird list so they counted.  I looked at 'em, got back in my car, and drove off.  Guess I'm lucky I didn't get arrested, huh??  ~;-)

     When I got to Canon City, I followed the signs that directed me south again toward
Temple Canyon Park, "one of the best areas of pinyon/juniper habitat in eastern Colorado," according to my ABA Guide to Birding in Colorado.  And as I bumped my fanny up the dirt road that wound through the mountains, I heard a funny sound, like a donkey braying, and followed my ears to what looked like a large grayish mockingbird-shaped bird with a short tail.  Actually, there were 2 of them, perched atop a small pine.  Unfortunately, I was looking directly into the glare of the sun to see the birds so all I could make out clearly was the long, straight, pointed shape of its bill and that the head was darker than the rest of the body.  And that raucous laughter.  So I put in my CD of "Bird Songs of the Rocky Mountain States and Provinces" and realized I finally seeing/hearing Pinyon Jays.  Larry Mays says we saw and heard Pinyon Jays out at Black Mesa in Apr 2000 but I never got a good look at 'em nor do I remember being able to hear them at all.  Pinyon Jay thus became my first lifer of the trip and YB#15.

Chipping Sparrows and more Audubon/Yellow-rumped Warblers seemed to be everywhere in the Park but there wasn't a lot else, and I was winding my way back down out of the mountains toward Salida when I stopped beside a small creekbed to listen to a sing-songy bird that I couldn't see.  It sounded something like a Bell's Vireo, and knowing of that species' fondness for singing from low-growing bushes, I scanned the trees and bushes along the creekbank, looking for it.  But not finding.  What I DID find was a Cassin's Finch, just a-singin' his li'l heart out.  At first, I thought "House Finch" but the song wasn't right; it still reminded me of Bell's Vireo.  And what was a House Finch doing at this altitude, a-way up here in the mountains??  So I dug out my Sibley's Guide, now buried under the maps and stuff in the passenger seat of my car, and looked to see what else it could be that resembles a House Finch (except for the crest on its head that reminded me of a Cardinal) but doesn't sing like one.  Bingo!!  Cassin's Finch, lifebird #2 and YB#16.  Color me happy.

     As I continued up Hwy 50 which follows the Arkansas River toward Salida, I heard a
Canyon Wren singing from the rocks overhead.  And as I slowly, gingerly crept over the summit of Monarch Pass (11,312 feet, at the top of the Continental Divide, with 6 feet of ice/snow packing each side of the road and the pavement slick with that icy rime that develops when the road is both cold and damp) and down the western slope, a yellow-shafted Northern Flicker flew across the highway.  Neither were yearbirds but I was pleased to count them as Colorado- and trip-birds.

     I got to Grand Junction about 5:00 p.m. Sunday (Apr 27) to find my father very debilitated by what we now know---weeks later!!---was at least one stroke.  He listed to the right when he walked (staggered, is more like it), his face that was paralyzed by surgically-induced Bell's Palsy 10 years ago sagged even more than usual, his speech very slurred, his short-term memory almost non-existent, and he was in terrible pain with a headache that had plagued him for at least 2 weeks previous, and knowing what I know now, I believe his symptoms were indicative of the stroke(s) he had recently suffered.  (Alas, no amount of pleading on my part induced my father to go to the doctor when the headaches began; instead, he waited 2 weeks to keep an appointment for a physical before telling the doctor about the headaches.  And by the time I got there, he was even sicker than he had been 2 weeks earlier.)

     The next morning, Monday, I went to the doctor with Mom and Dad and told the doctor that my father was in terrible pain, that he had been in pain for at least 2 weeks now, that he had been talking of dying the night before ("if I'm gonna die, just let me die"), and that one of two things was going to happen before the end of the day:  either he (the doctor) would be dead by my hand OR my dad would be out of pain.  And I further punctuated my threats by adding that "_I_'m the bossy daughter!"  Dr. Rademacher turned to Dad and asked, "Wayne, how do you put up with this kind of abuse??"

     Dad replied, "are you kidding?  I've got two more just like her at home!!"

     Dr. Rademacher ordered a CAT scan for that very afternoon, and then for the rest of my visit, at least as far as Dad's health was concerned, we waited for the results.  (Eventually, he had an MRI which revealed where the stroke(s) had occurred, and as of mid-June, Dad is already recovering, altho' his short-term memory remains greatly impaired.)  Dad felt bad that I'd come all that distance (1,000 miles each way) just to watch him being sick when he'd wanted to take me here and there sightseeing, but I reminded him that I'd come to visit him and Mom, to be with them, and as long as we were together, that's all that mattered.

     On the other hand, I also came to bird.  Tomorrow, the Monument.

Chapter 1:  Apr 26-28, 2003, Tulsa to Grand Junction