Thursday, July 23, 2009

SkyWatch Friday #54

My last Colorado SkyWatch shot, from somewhere along the drive through the winding canyons of the Colorado Rockies.

Colorado SkyWatch

One of the many things that impressed me so much about the beautiful imagery in Colorado was the deep rich blues of the sky. You just don't see that kind of color in the low-altitude, smog-saturated skies of Houston.

For more intriguing images of the skies above our world, check out the SkyWatch Friday home page.

SkyWatch Friday

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly: Horned Lark

Another outing we did in Colorado was to Fossil Creek Reservoir in Fort Collins (Larimer County). As we first entered the area, we were met by this friendly fellow:

Horned Lark
Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris)

He was not at all intimidated by our presence, sitting calmly as we admired him and even turning his back on us long enough for us all to get a good look at his "horns."

Horned Lark

If you look closely, you can even see the subtle yellow highlights around his eyes (hard to make out in the bright late morning light).

Horned Lark

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #47.

Bird Photography Weekly

Thursday, July 16, 2009

SkyWatch Friday #53: Still Standing

Still standing

For more intriguing images of the skies above our world, check out the SkyWatch Friday home page.

SkyWatch Friday

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reaching the Summit

A few more pictures from the last leg of our winding ascent through the Rocky Mountains.

Overlooking Hidden Valley and Sheep Lakes

This is the beautiful view from Rainbow Curve, where I spotted the Clark's Nutcracker of my previous post. In fact, at the top of the largest clump of scrubby-looking trees in the lower center of the picture is where the nutcracker was perched. (If you look at this much larger version of the image, you can barely see the little blog of light gray and black that is the nutcracker.) Not quite at "eye-level" as I had remembered, but still an excellent vantage point from which to bird.

Running crazily in and out of the rocks and boulders in the foreground were several small chipmunk-looking critters, which according to this authoritative site were actually Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

These spastic little creatures were constantly on the go and not at all afraid of people, to the delight and enjoyment of a number of kids and other sightseers who seemed more interested in their antics than in the beautiful panorama spread out before us.

Moving farther up the slopes, we quickly move beyond the tree line and into more and more patches of still-lingering snow. And enjoying the thin air and cool summer temperatures were a small family of the most magnificent animals we had yet encountered in the park: North American Elk.

North American Elk

North American Elk

Unfortunately, it was just about the time we spotted the elk that the altitude sickness hit me square in the head (with a corresponding kick to the stomach). We stopped off at the Alpine Visitors Center for the kids to realize their lifelong dreams of touching real snow, and for me to get a little fresh air to clear the cobwebs. But as the headache and nausea increased and a wave of dizziness started to take hold, a resident park ranger / E.M.P. sent us scurrying back off the mountaintop with scare tactics worthy of a middle school principal. The rest of the trip was, quite literally, downhill from there.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tree Top Surprise

Nearing the top of the tree line as we climbed steadily toward the snowy caps, we stopped off at the observation point at Rainbow Curve. Looking out over the spectacular landscape stretching away before us, it was very easy to miss the hidden treasure perched in the top of a much closer tree top. Just at our eye level, this Clark's Nutcracker sat quietly watching the busy sightseers coming and going.

Clark's Nutcracker - 6/27/2009
Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)

This turned out to be one of two of Clark's namesakes (the only two resident to North America, as far as I know) that I added to my life list during my weekend in Colorado. I'll post pictures of the Clark's Grebes as soon as I can remember to download them from the other memory card...

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #46.

Bird Photography Weekly

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Rocky Mountain Skies

We break the blow-by-blow account of our recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park to simply enjoy the deep blue perfection of the Colorado skies, the peaceful green valleys, and the brilliant snow-capped peaks of this beautiful area.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain High

Green valleys and snow-covered peaks
Click any image to see the full-sized version

For more intriguing images of the skies above our world, check out the SkyWatch Friday home page.

SkyWatch Friday

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A River Runs Down It

Rocky Mountain National Park

Once we got inside the park, our first stop was for a nice picnic lunch with the birds. Next stop, however, was to do a little climbing to see this glorious sight:

Flowing down the mountainside Tumbling down the mountainside

A little closer look

With my knee problems, I quickly decided that I would be the one to stay down low and take pictures. Cat and her Aunt Susan got a little more adventurous, climbing up the rocks that bordered the swift-moving flow.

Rock climbing at the falls

Of course, if the girls were going to do a little climbing, then Cowboy and Uncle Jason were going to have to work to show them up. This shot is taken from the same vantage point and at the same resolution as the one above. See those two little blue forms in the middle of the picture that appear to be waving?

A little perspective

Eventually, they all came back down, and my sister even enticed me to get out from behind the camera for a change, if just to prove that I really was on the trip. Then it was time to pile back in the car and head farther up into the mountains.

The windblown look

For more great water-themed images, visit Watery Wednesday #43.
Watery Wednesday

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lake Loveland and the Search for Bighorn Sheep

Starting out for the mountains, we first passed through the city of Loveland, Colorado. Loveland is well-known for its public arts collection, most of which consists of sculptures that decorate various public lands and parks around the city. (In fact, one of the sites I hope to see the next time I visit the area is Loveland's Benson Sculpture Garden, which contains what is reportedly one of the nation's best outdoor sculpture exhibits.)

We hadn't planned on stopping in Loveland, but as we drove alongside Lake Loveland we just couldn't pass up such a picturesque view of the mountains.

Lake Loveland

Colorado Rocky Mountains

And of course we then had to stay and enjoy some of the sculptures located along the scenic shore.

Loveland art   Loveland art

Once we finally had our fill of scenery and sculpture (and, of course, had skipped about half the rocks in Loveland across the surface of the lake), we piled back in the car and headed into the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Rocky Mountain foothills

One of the things Cat had been hoping for was to catch a glimpse of the mountain goats that live in the mountains of Colorado. (Well, the actual request was for "yodeling mountain goats," but I blame that on too many hours spent watching The Sound of Music when the kids were younger.) As we passed through the canyons leading toward the park, we soon discovered that Colorado doesn't have mountain goats. We all agreed that Bighorn Sheep would do just fine, but no matter how hard we looked we never did spot any of the creatures. Yodeling or not.

On the lookout for bighorn sheep

Looking for mountain goats

Another thing we had talked about seeing was waterfalls, and Cowboy was so excited when we came across our first one that he used up half the film in his camera documenting this natural wonder.

Estes Park waterfall

Unfortunately, this one was man-made and only about three feet tall, located near the parking lot of a strip center in the touristy town of Estes Park. A bit of a letdown, but the next leg of the trip more than made up for it!

TOMORROW'S POST: The real thing...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly: Birding Colorado

Last weekend, the kids and I headed to Colorado to visit my sister and her fiancé. We spent most of the day Saturday in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Most of the day, that is, until wimpy Dad got altitude sickness and the park rangers sent us scurrying down the mountain so I wouldn't pass out or toss my cookies all over their pretty little mountains ... but we won't bring any of that up, okay?)

Anyway, my first definitive lifer of the weekend was actually the Black-billed Magpie, a beautiful bird that we saw several times while driving and about which I am still kicking myself for the repeated phrase of, "No, don't stop. We've seen so many, I'm sure I'll get another chance to photograph it." D'oh!

However, the second lifer of the trip pretty much demanded that his picture be taken. As we stopped for a picnic lunch about a half hour inside the park, we could hear plenty of bird life surrounding us. Hawks cried from somewhere above, chickadees and other unrecognized passerines chirped and sang from within the full green branches, and a small woodpecker taunted us from the deep shadows of a nearby trunk. But almost before we had even managed to unpack our fruit and sandwiches, this handsome fellow came a'calling.

Steller's Jay - 6/27/2009
Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

With his coal black eyes and head and crest of charcoal, this western jay is quite striking. The white streaking above and below its beak and around the eyes lend it an almost malevolent air.

Steller's Jay - 6/27/2009

And yet its other end almost glows in contrast, with the gleaming blue wings and tail and the softer blue of its undersides.

Steller's Jay - 6/27/2009

As bold and tenacious as the blue jays or grackles of home, this Steller's Jay became our constant companion ... for as long as we had food in sight. In fact, it scolded us rather soundly when Cowboy "accidentally" dropping a handful of grapes in the direction of our other companion, a fat little chipmunk that had also taken up sentry duty near our table.

Steller's Jay - 6/27/2009

My first instinct was to label his attitude "imperious," demanding his rightful share of the glorious bounty we had brought. But looking at the deep burning embers of his eyes in that shot, I'm beginning to agree with my sister's more instantaneous reaction of "demonic." I certainly wouldn't want to meet this guy alone in a dark alley...

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #45.

Bird Photography Weekly

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Quintana Concluded

Besides the enthralling hummingbirds and abundance of wildflowers featured in my two previous posts, there were plenty of other wonders to enjoy at the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary.

Northern Cardinal - 5/29/2009
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

There were cardinals and mockingbirds, ever present and always enjoyable.

Northern Mockingbird - 5/29/2009
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

There was a surprising number of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in and around the area — surprising to me anyway, since I'd never seen them in the area before.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - 5/29/2009
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus)

This was my first opportunity to photograph these slender beauties or even to observe them close up, and I was amazed both at how graceful they were in the hard winds blowing in from the gulf and at how quickly they moved in flight. I've decided that I'll need quite a bit more practice and familiarity with these tyrant flycatchers (or a good helping of luck) if I want to capture any shareable pictures of them in flight.

Another treat of the morning's trip was the opportunity to watch five Common Nighthawks wheeling and diving overhead. I climbed to the top of the sanctuary's observation tower and spent a good twenty minutes trailing them as they moved down the island until they finally passed beyond the range of my binoculars. New addition to my life list!

Common Nighthawk - 5/29/2009
Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)

There were also plenty of dragonflies and butterflies on hand, busily enjoying the bounty of this small paradise.

Butterfly - 5/29/2009

Giant Swallowtail - 5/29/2009
Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)

I ended the day with a quick drive down the road to nearby Bryan Beach, where the tidal pools hiding behind the dunes often attract a variety of shorebirds, herons and such. This particular morning, two lonesome Willets comprised the total count of shorebirds and no waders were in sight, but the sandbars and the far edges of the water were teeming with Laughing Gulls and terns, including Caspians, Royals and even a couple of Sandwich Terns.

Laughing Gulls - 5/29/2009
Juvenile Laughing Gulls (Larus atricilla)

However, these three young gulls seemed to be the only ones not taking a midday siesta; they were busy cackling and playing in the water like their human counterparts just on the other side of the dunes, enjoying the beautiful weather while the grown-ups lazily soaked up the early summer sun.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - 5/29/2009
"What, you're still here?"