On Melons and Roadrunners

The Arkansas River Valley, where it cuts through the plains of southeastern Colorado, is known for melons. The farms are clustered around the small town of Rocky Ford. During late summer, Rocky Ford melons are available all over the state. And they are good.

On Sunday after church, we did our weekly grocery shopping. Sally bought two melons, a watermelon and a cantaloupe. More on this later.

On Saturday, a birder found two Zone-tailed Hawks in the Higbee Valley along the Purgatoire River south of La Junta. (The “junt” is pronounced like the “hunt” in hunter.) Zone-tails are generally found in southern New Mexico and Arizona. I’ve never seen one. Or at least I’ve never seen one and known what I was looking at. There’s a bit of bitterness in that last sentence.

Back in spring 1984, I toured southern Arizona with Sally and my parents. One of our stops was the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. There were birds all over the place. I spotted nine lifers in about an hour and a half. I was so excited about new birds that I paid almost no attention to birds I’d already seen. I spotted several Turkey Vultures circling overhead and wrote them off as uninteresting. When we got back to the parking lot, we met the resident naturalist. He asked if we’d seen the Zone-tailed Hawk. He then proceeded to tell us that it had been flying with the Vultures. He told me the hawks looked very like the vultures and fly with them as camouflage. I was upset that I’d missed it, and I’ve stayed upset every since.

So when I saw that two Zone-tails had been seen about two-and-a-half hours from home, I decided to go for it. They have a reputation of being unchaseable. In other words, after a birder finds one, the hawk almost never sticks around long enough to be seen by other birders. But there were two, which I thought doubled my chances. 

I left home around 12:15. Sally told me, if I saw a fruit market, that I should stop and buy a couple melons. As I drove through Rocky Ford, I saw a fruit market. I stopped.  They didn’t have a lot of fruit on display.

The guy standing in the doorway in the photo came out to help. I told him I wanted a couple melons but didn’t know much about how to pick them. As I sorted through the melons in the big box, I noticed most of them had soft spots. The guy started taking them from me and tossing them. He said, “My rule is that if I leave fingerprints on the melon, it’s too ripe.” No joke. He finally took me to other bins and we found a couple. He told me I should probably eat one of them that day.

Experience-wise, it just wasn’t very satisfying. Especially when I pulled back on the road and passed several other larger markets with great piles of melons. My car began smelling like cantaloupe almost immediately. 

I got to La Junta a short time later and headed south into the dry plains. 

The road cut across a corner of Comanche National Grasslands. As I drove, I noticed the sky getting a decidedly threatening look.

I found Higbee Valley Road and drove slowly, checking out all the birds I saw and especially the Turkey Vultures, of which there were many. I continued for about six miles, then turned around and drove slowly back. I didn’t see any Zone-tailed Hawks. I did see a Mississippi Kite, several kestrels and Swainson’s Hawks, Blue Grosbeaks, and a pair of roadrunners. 

One jumped on a fence post as I went by. I pulled my car at an angle across the road so I could get a photo looking back at it.

A second roadrunner popped out of the weeds and began walking toward my car. It passed right by me, not four feet from the window where I was taking photos. I never got close enough to one before to see the blue on the tail.

On my way back up the valley, I spotted one of them on a rock. As I watched, it yawned.

The storm disappeared after a mild ten-minute shower, and the sun came out. This brought out the Turkey Vultures, and I scanned them carefully. Some of them probably several times. 

It was a fun road to bird, and I decided I wanted to come back sometime. But I had a long drive ahead of me, and I had to go to work in the morning. As I headed through Rocky Ford and passed one of the nicer market stands, I pulled in on impulse.

I bought a cantaloupe, a honeydew melon, and several very fuzzy peaches. We now had six melons. The ride home was uneventful (except for the smell of cantaloupes). I arrived around 6:30. 

Sally cut up the one from the sketchy place that the guy said was should eat right away. It was green on the inside, and very juicy. It tasted a little like a honeydew, but with a squishier texture. It was good. The next day, Sally cut up two cantaloupe. They were also very good. The fourth cantaloupe I took to work and put on the kitchen counter for whoever wanted it. it went fast. We still have a watermelon and an honeydew to go.

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On Barn Owls and Yoga

For the past week or so, birders have been reporting a Barn Owl nest at Red Rocks Park, west of Denver. Red Rocks is primarily a concert venue built into a group of sandstone rock formations in the foothills. 

I hadn’t seen a Barn Owl since Sally found one in a cottonwood tree along the Tucson, Arizona sewage ponds back in March, 1984. I thought it was about time I saw another one. All I had to go on were some close-up photos on eBird of a section of one of the rock formations. In them, you can make out some young Barn Owls tucked back in the shadows of a ledge with an overhang. The cliff in front of the next is white with bird splash. I figured that if I walked the trails at Red Rocks and looked for that whitewash on the cliffs, I’d find the nest.

I got to  Red Rocks at 8:00 and parked in the first spot I found, a small pulloff by a trailhead at the extreme south end of the park. I walked the Trading Post Trail, keeping my eyes on the cliffs. There were a handful of hikers on the trail, but it certainly wasn’t busy. This surprised me because, as I got closer to the amphitheater, I could see several parking lots, and they were all packed. I knew there wasn’t a concert, but something was drawing a crowd. I soon found out.

When I got to the gate, I had to wait 10 minutes while a long stream of people in exercise clothes, carrying rubber mats, strolled out. It turns out there was a ticketed morning group yoga exercise in the amphitheater. I don’t know how many people can do yoga at the same time in that space, but whatever that number is, that’s how many people were there doing it. I’d estimate at least a couple thousand. 

When I was finally allowed in, there were still a lot of yogers milling around. I crossed the arena and climbed the stairs. The trail at the north end of the park climbs a steep hill. I’m guessing it was at least 800 feet of elevation gain from the car. It was every bit as steep as Quandary Peak last weekend, but not as long, of course. I stopped regularly to catch my breath check out the rock faces for whitewash. I was pretty sure I was being thorough, but i wasn’t seeing much.

When I got back closer to the top of the amphitheater, I did spot a stick nest high on a cliff above the visitor center, but that obviously wasn’t a Barn Owl nest. I’m pretty sure it was a Peregrine Falcon nest, because I saw two of them flying around the area a short time later.

The forecast for Denver today was 90°, and it was heating up rapidly. I passed a maintenance worker and asked him if he knew where the owl’s nest was. He said, “Owl? Most people are interested in the falcons.” I also asked a parking lot attendant and he said, “I saw an owl behind the trading post once.” I was obviously on my own.

I walked down through the arena again and then took every path or road that gave me a good look at the cliff faces. I was walking past the final rock formation when I spotted a patch of whitewash high up on the cliff. I pulled up eBird on my phone and compared what I was looking at to the photos. Everything matched, but I couldn’t see into the shadows with by binoculars. At this point, my car was only 30 yards away. I pulled my scope out of the trunk and spent about 20 minutes looking at two baby Barn Owls. One was pretty much adult size and had feathers everywhere except for a remaining patch of gray down on its back and head. The other one was smaller. All I could see of it was the head and shoulders, and they were covered with white down. I could clearly see the classic Barn Owl “monkey face” on the younger one, but the larger one was hard to make out. I stuck with it and finally saw it turn its head enough that I could make out its face. (Or at least I thought that’s what I was looking at. When I got home and looked at the video I shot by holding my phone up to my scope, I see that there were at least two downy young and I’m not sure if the one with the feathers is the adult or not.)

I was finally satisfied—and hot and thirsty and sunburned. I put my scope away and got in my car. When I looked up, I realized I could clearly see the nest—and the owls through the windshield. If I had just know where to look, I wouldn’t have needed to get out of my car. (Well, OK, I still would have needed to get my scope to get good views and it was in the trunk, but you know what I mean.

Here’s a map of the park. The red X is where I parked. The red circle is where I was when I found the next. The blue arrow points approximately to where the nest was.

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Quandary Peak

Quandary Peak (Summit County) — 14,265 feet—So named by miners who could not identify ore found on the mountain.

My friend and coworker Young organized a hike up this 14er for anyone who wanted to go. Her offer was accepted by Megan, Kimm, Kimm’s husband Steve, their son Ben and his friend Cameron, and their dog. Four of Young’s Korean hiking buddies also joined us, along with one of their husbands. And me.

I met Young, Megan, and Sue at CBS at 4:15 am. We drove through Ute Pass and across South Park under the light of an amazing full moon.

Moonset

We crossed Hoosier Pass as the sun came up. Young pulled over for photos.

That’s Quandary Peak in the left distance.

Another view from near the trailhead.

We arrived around 6:40 to find all the trailhead parking lots packed. We wedged into a spot along the road. As we waited for the other members of our group to arrive, I noticed this sign. Megan and I laughed at the last line. I told her, “If all goes well today, maybe we can be friends.” 

The trailhead was at 10,937 feet above sea level, which meant that I had 3,328 feet of elevation to climb. We finally got started a few minutes after 7:00. The first third of the trail ran through a pleasant pine forest. The trail led up stairs that Young actually helped build.

I was feeling good at this point, and was actually quite a ways out in front of the group for much of the way. That’s Mount Lincoln in the distance. It’s another 14er that’s 30 feet higher than Quandary.

When the trees thinned out, we could see the peak of Quandary in the distance. Just kidding. The mountain has a false summit that’s a long, long way from the peak.

The false summit of Quandary is on the right. North Star Mountain, which reaches 13,614 is in the middle, with Mount Lincoln poking up in the distance. I think that’s Mount Silverheels (13,829 feet) on the far left on the other side of Hoosier Pass.

The false summit is out of view behind the trees in the next photo. The actual summit can be seen here. It looked and felt like it was a long way away. This shot also shows how crowded the trail was. It was pretty much like this from this point to the summit. I’m told it’s called a “conga line.” Most of the people were friendly and polite, so I didn’t really begrudge their presence. But Quandary on a summer Saturday is not the place to seek solitude.

I’ve been told that Quandary is one of the pretty 14er treks, and I can believe it. The trail looks over the Blue Lakes in the valley between Quandary and North Star Mountain.

The last section before we left the trees had a lot of steps made of uneven slabs of rock. These made for hard climbing. We were already close to 12,000 feet. On all my mountain climbs, I’ve had trouble with dizziness. I just can’t get enough air when I’m that high up, no matter what I do. The dizziness began as I climbed the steps, and I soon wasn’t having a lot of fun. This next photo is looking back to the northeast. The wiggly line is the road through Hoosier Pass that we drove this morning. In the hazy distance is South Park.

We finally made it out of the trees and found the surface covered with rocks. 

As we approached the false summit, the sky turned gray. The one thing I’ve always been told about climbing 14ers is to definitely, absolutely NEVER be on the exposed face during storms. I was ready to turn back. I figured it was probably already dangerous and would only get worse. I could see how much mountain I had yet to climb and was not at all interested in climbing another hour and then having to turn back short of the top. But Young said we should go a little further and see what happened. As it turned out, a few minutes later the sky was clear again.

I was no longer leading the pack. Steve, Ben, and Cameron had disappeared uphill. Young was hanging back with us slowpokes. 

I was feeling miserable and fine. Miserable because I couldn’t get air. Fine because that’s how I always feel at that altitude—it’s my mountain-climbing normal. When we climbed Mount Evans last summer, I was on my own for much of the way, so nobody could see how often I had to stop and gasp. This time there were people around. Sue is an oncologist. She noticed me suffering and took me on as her special project. She kept checking my palms and telling me to drink more water and giving me food to eat. I appreciated her thoughtfulness, and I figured maybe, since she was a doctor, that her advice might help. Whenever my dizziness made me wobble, she would subtly position herself to catch me. Since she weighs about 95 pounds, I’m not sure how that would have worked if I had fallen. That’s her in the maroon coat right behind me. She climbed up and down the mountain with her hands in her pockets.

When we finally crested the false summit, it was demoralizing. There was a long plateau and then a long, steep climb yet to go.

The trail, such as it was, was a barely discernible path where trail maintenance crews had dumped smaller rocks in between the larger rocks to smooth things out. We were still at just about 13,000 feet here. That’s Kimm on the left, with my personal physician on my right.

We still had this to tackle. To get a sense of the scale, notice the chain of people all the way up.

I had a method to my  misery. I would set a goal up ahead—a particular rock or patch of color. The light gray chevron visible in the two previous photos was a big one. When I achieved it, I would stop and bend over my hiking poles until the dizziness stopped, then I would look up, set my next goal, and climb. I felt great if I managed to go a couple feet past my goal. 

Sue kept telling me to drink more water. But I began noticing something around this point—drinking water made me feel sick. I was siphoning the water through tube from a bladder in my backpack. I think the lousy feeling came over me because, when I was drinking, I wasn’t breathing. The Koreans kept giving me slices of orange and fruit snacks “for an energy boost.” But energy wasn’t my problem. My legs were fine. I just couldn’t get air. I think they were surprised when I would stop for 30 seconds and then keep going. I’m sure I looked like I needed more rest than that. One of Young’s friends decided to inspire us by singing operatic style. It didn’t help. Not a bit.

The reason I kept going wasn’t fear of failure or pride. It was the realization that I had given up an entire Saturday and gone through a great deal of discomfort to get this far. I wasn’t about to go through all that without something to show for it.

Here I am with Kimm. I don’t remember what I was doing, but from the look on her face, I’m guessing I was illustrating the way I felt.

Me and Sue. Notice the sky.

There was a summit. I finally reached it at 11:20, four hours and 20 minutes after I started. 

I found place to settle, took off my backpack, and rested. As soon as I stopped climbing, I felt fine. Here’s the view to the northeast.

Looking west.

Looking north.

Looking southeast toward Hoosier Pass.

Proof I made it. I felt fine, except that I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything. It just wouldn’t go down.

Young showed up with her sign and took photos of all of us.

With Megan, Kimm, and Young

With Kimm (left), Sue (red coat) and her friends. I don’t remember this photo being taken, and I have no idea what I was pointing at.

After maybe 15 minutes, Young said we should get going. There were some clouds building in the area, but they didn’t amount to much yet. I put my backpack back on and was ready to go, but we hung around taking photos for another 10 minutes. I put on a brace on my right knee because going down Mount Evans last year almost destroyed me.

We’d hiked for maybe 10 minutes when the cloud overhead turned black and it began to hail and thunder. This was a terrible feeling because we were at least 2,000 feet and a couple miles from any kind of shelter. All we could do was keep going. 

The air was soon filled with electricity. Megan noticed it first when her hair started crackling and standing straight out from her head. I thought it was kinda funny until I started feeling it too. The current came through the button on the top of my hat and exited through my shoes. I could feel it running all the way down my body. It hurt to hold my hiking poles. I kept going and waited for the lightning to strike. The electrical storm probably didn’t last for more than three or four minutes, but it felt like a long time. To make it more exciting, the hail and rain kept up for about half an hour, which made the rocks wet and slippery.

Not long after the storm passed, my legs gave out. Both thigh muscles just quit. I had spaghetti legs. If I could lock my knees, I was fine. But that’s impossible to do when going downhill. I relied completely on my hiking poles. There’s no way I could have made it without them. It was brace, step, stumble, recover, brace, step, stumble, recover, repeat. All the way down the mountain. By this point, we were among the last people on the mountain. I’d quit taking photos, but Young still was. The photo below shows best what I was dealing with. I look crippled, and essentially was. Most of the group went on ahead, but Young, Megan, and Steve stayed with me. (Steve had summited, then gone down below the treeline when the storm hit and waited for the rest of us there.)

I have always had reserves of energy I could tap into, but not this day. I was beat. It wasn’t just my legs. I had a sharp pain in my stomach. People kept giving me food to eat, but my body wasn’t digesting it. It was just sitting there. My hands were also tired and sore from gripping the poles and supporting my weight.

I’ve never been so frustrated in my life. I was weak, and I was slowing everybody down. I don’t generally picture myself as a hero. Maybe sometimes a sidekick. But NEVER as the person who needs to be rescued. The thing that kept me going was a lack of options.

When I finally got back to the trailhead, it was around 2:30. It had taken me two-and-a-half hours to get down. I managed to stumble over the the sign for the group photo. I deliberately stood in the shadow so my tears of frustration wouldn’t show.

Tony, the guy in the blue shirt in front, gave me a ride the 200 yards from the sign to Young’s car. He told me the total round trip from trailhead to summit to trailhead was 13 miles. My phone recorded it as 9 miles, which Young said was close to accurate. According to the Internet, the length is 6.2 miles, but nobody I talked to believed it was that short. Whatever the length, the altitude gain was 3,450 feet. 

When Sue got in the car, I thanked for for helping me and watching out for me. She responded by saying, “Thank you for accepting my help. I didn’t think you would. You were adorable. It’s not just me saying that. All the women were saying it. You just kept going. And you have such a sweet face.” Or something like that. I very much appreciated her kindness, but I doubted her judgment.

As we drove away, we took a look back at the mountain.

The ride home took forever. My muscles were hurting, but that was the least of it. I had to ask Young to stop so I could use the bathroom in Fairplay and again in Florissant. When I finally got home around 4:30, I had to go badly again—and then again a little while later.

In retrospect, I think my body simply wasn’t processing the water I was drinking or digesting the food I ate. I was bloated and dehydrated. That’s probably what caused my leg weakness. Or maybe I’m just old and out of shape.

I went to bed for three hours, then got up and watched a movie. On Sunday, I took four naps. By Monday, I was feeling human again.

Last year, we started our climb of Mount Evans at 12,850 feet and hiked up 1,650 feet. Those who care say the altitude gain has to be 3,000 feet to count as an official 14er climb. I’ve now officially climbed a 14er. Never again. The dizziness that I always face is no fun. And I’m also not willing to risk the issues I faced this time.

Halfway down the mountain, Kimm caught up to me and asked if I was going to be Megan’s friend. When we got back to the car, I told Megan it was official. So at least the hike accomplished that.

Posted in Hikes, Scenery | 1 Comment

Lifer #500 — Black Swift

cypseloides niger

Thursday, July 26, 2018 — 7:50 am

Colorado City, Colorado — Beckwith Reservoir

Black Swifts are hard to find. They nest on the West Coast on ocean cliffs and at scattered locations in the Rockies near waterfalls. They aren’t common anywhere, and they don’t usually gather in any numbers. They can be most easily found if you know where a nest is wedged into a rock wall. Some birders who have seen Black Swifts multiple times on nests have never seen one in flight. That’s because they leave their roosts early in the morning and range over a large area, sometimes miles from home. They often fly very high up, where they can easily be overlooked, and they rarely make any noise away from the nest.

After trying and failing to see the swifts at Rocky Mountain National Park last Wednesday, I thought my chances for the year might be over. But then somebody found a few flying over Beckwith Reservoir in Colorado City a couple days ago. And then somebody else went down yesterday and saw them again. I made a sudden decision last night to go for it this morning. I texted my coworkers that I would be getting to work late.

All of the swift sightings were early—before 7:30 am, which meant that I had to get up at 5:00 am.  When I got up this morning, it was dark and raining hard. I checked the weather on my phone and saw that the storm was centered around Colorado Springs. The urge to go back to bed was strong but I fought it off. 

The rain kept up as I drove through Fountain, then stopped suddenly. Soon after, I was treated to a glorious sunrise.

I got to Beckwith Reservoir around 6:40. I determined that I would leave by 8:00 so I could get to work by 10:00. The lake isn’t huge. There are houses around, but not a ton of them. A concrete walking path that circles the lake was in use by a steady stream of elderly exercisers. The sky was still cloudy, and a breeze kept things cool. By the time I left, the clouds had evaporated and the summer sun was warming things up quickly.

I walked along the shore and saw a variety of birds. I didn’t make any extra effort to identify them because my attention was on the sky. There were a couple hundred swallows around, which made picking out a swift or two challenging. By 7:45, I still hadn’t seen any,  and I figured that, since it was already later than when they’d been seen the past couple days, I’d missed out. 

Then high up across the lake, my eye caught a hint of movement against a white cloud. I looked through my binoculars and saw two swifts circling. They were so far up that I could only occasionally, barely, see them with the naked eye. But through my binoculars, I had no doubt they were swifts. I could tell that they were all dark, which ruled out White-throated Swift. Vaux’s and Chimney Swifts are both well out of range here, plus they’re smaller, grayer, and have narrower wings. I was sure I was looking at Black Swifts. I grabbed my camera to try for some video, but it wouldn’t focus. When I gave up, the birds had disappeared.

That was disappointing. I had seen them for maybe 15 seconds from very far away. Although I knew what I’d seen, I wasn’t satisfied. I ran/walked around the north end of the lake and kept looking. 8:00 came and went. Around 8:10, I found them again. They were lower,  flying near treetop level along a ridge west of the lake. I was still a long way off, but the view was better. I took a good long look with my binoculars to double-check my i.d. I could see the squared-off tails and the long sickle-like wing bent back in an arc. The sun  was behind me, giving me the best possible light.

I tried again for a video, this time by holding my phone up to my binoculars. Here’s what I got.

When I enlarged that as much as possible and took some screen shots, I got these views.

After maybe five minutes, the swifts disappeared again. I headed for home. Here’s a shot  I took of Beckwith Reservoir just before I left. I’d seen the swifts flying up and down that ridge in the background. I took the video above from the path in the far corner of the lake, about where the row of trees on the right-hand side of the photo ends at the beach.

My quest for 500 birds in North America began 39 years, 2 months, 14 days, 16 hours (accounting for the difference between Central and Mountain Time), and 45 minutes (give or take a minute or two) ago. I still plan to bird and chase lifers, but from here on, any new ones will be a bonus.

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