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Mountain vacation leads to discoveries

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Much of the enjoyment in traveling to other parts of the country is observing resident flora and fauna and trying to identify the newly encountered species.

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I recently experienced once again the unending pleasure of exploring and hunting within the peaks and valleys of the Gore Mountain Range of Routt National Forest in beautiful northwest Colorado.

Aside from the absolute thrill of gazing across scenic mountaintop vistas at surrounding wild lands, I found myself forever curious about everything new and different. Some plants and animals are ubiquitous and were readily familiar to me, such as the downy woodpecker, American robin, gray jay, white-breasted nuthatch and red squirrel.

Others were less known, but somewhat familiar nonetheless, albeit of an altogether different species within the same genus, like the mountain chickadee and Steller's jay. And there were, of course, trees and shrubs. Pines, spruce and fir - so alike our own native Minnesota conifers, yet dissimilar in many ways.

One bird that I especially enjoyed observing and listening to was the Steller's jay. Named after German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who evidently "discovered" the bird in the 1700s, Steller's jays are closely related to our own blue jay. Steller's jays are also the only crested jays west of the Rockies.

Steller's jays behave similarly to blue jays. Not only are they instantly recognizable as a cousin of blue jays, they're noisy and anxious-acting just like blue jays are. These Rocky Mountain species of jays, which are slightly larger than blue jays, possess a much more pronounced crest on their heads than blue jays have.

Still, the Steller's jay is as distinctively colored as blue jays are. Their conspicuous looking blackish heads and upper bodies contrast vividly with their bluish lower bodies and tails. To be sure, Steller's jays are very appealing to the eye.

Another interesting bird that to many people appears like any other run-of-the-mill Minnesota chickadee is the mountain chickadee. However, upon closer examination, the black cap that we Minnesotans have come to recognize about our black-capped chickadees is bisected by white "eyebrows" above black eye stripes. Both species share otherwise similar markings and coloration, such as black bibs and basic plumage color and patterns.

And, like black-capped chickadees, mountain chickadees are social and friendly behaving birds that readily come to investigate anything that fancies their curiosity. Mountain chickadees seem delightfully indifferent to one's presence and are a joy to have as company, though usually for only a short period of time as they flit about, call to one another and forage for seeds and insects as they go.

One more bird that caught my eye that I had never observed in the past was a rather large bird resembling a pine grosbeak at first glance, minus the robust bill and overall coloration. As I stood one afternoon on a rock outcrop enjoying another spectacular mountain view, I spotted from afar the silhouette of the bird perched on top a very large Douglas fir tree.

Apparently spotting me, the bird left its roost and flew directly toward me and landed in a nearby lodge pole pine. As I focused my binoculars on the bird, my first thought, as I mentioned, was of a pine grosbeak, but I quickly deduced it wasn't a grosbeak when the bird's overall color and bill-shape didn't match up.

This bird's bill was quite slender, but not very long; it had an obvious white eye-ring around its eye; and its grayish plumage, white outer tail feathers, and interesting wing patterns seemed diagnostic to the species. My next thought was a solitaire, although I had never seen one before, but I remembered the bird from countless instances of flipping through my bird field guidebooks. Indeed, my new bird was a Townsend's solitaire.

Related to bluebirds, robins and thrushes, Townsend's solitaires are not much smaller than our own American robins. Named after ornithologist John Kirk Townsend, solitaires prefer mountainous forests. As I've learned, the bird feeds primarily on insects and berries. During the wintertime when solitaires descend to lower elevations, they feed almost exclusively on juniper berries.

Also amongst the unfamiliar avian faces in the crowd within the variously vegetated mountain slopes, I was also happy to observe some familiar friends of the forest. Gray jays were ever present and constantly entertaining. Usually arriving in single pairs, I took immense pleasure from watching their graceful glides through the trees, alighting softly on limbs or upon the ground, as well as listening to the whistled conversations they would carry on between themselves.

Additionally, there were abundant common ravens fully engaged in high-spirited and acrobatic free-fall flights, complete with their own highly unique language of assorted bell-notes, twangs and croaks. As well, to remind me of familiar places back home, there were numerous downy woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches scratching, tapping and hammering upon dead pine trees as they searched underneath bark and between fissures for insects to eat.

Ah yes, my time in the mountains was magnificent in everyway. It was a time of discovery and relaxation - a time for touching base with wild things, new and old alike.

If not for my own peace of mind, then, at the very least, reasons enough to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

--

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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