Blane Klemek: Birds abound amid mountain majesties
I recently experienced once again the unending pleasure of deer hunting and exploring within the peaks, valleys, draws, drainages, and ridges of the Gore Mountain Range of Routt National Forest in beautiful northwest Colorful Colorado.
Aside from the thrill of gazing across scenic mountaintop vistas, I found myself forever awestruck about everything. As observed during past visits, some plants and animals are ubiquitous and were readily familiar to me once again, such as the downy woodpecker, American robin, gray jay, white-breasted nuthatch, and red squirrel – although each of these species show some degree of differences in plumage and pelage coloration from their Minnesotan conspecifics. Even these aforementioned species’ vocal repertoire is sometimes slightly different from their Minnesota brethren.
Other species are lesser known, albeit becoming more familiar with each visit, yet continue to be delightful curiosities to me such as the mountain chickadee, gray jay, Clark’s nutcracker, and Steller’s jay.
Of the latter species, I especially enjoyed observing and listening to 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 Rocky Mountains.
Steller’s jays behave similarly to blue jays. Not only are they instantly recognizable as a cousin of blue jays, they are noisy and anxious-acting just like blue jays. These western species of jays, which are slightly larger than our resident 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 and white marking above their eyes and on their throats. To be sure, Steller’s jays are very appealing to the eye.
Another interesting bird that too many people appear like any other run-of-the-mill Minnesota black-capped chickadee is the mountain chickadee. However, upon closer examination, the black cap that we Minnesotans have come to recognize about our species of chickadee 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 indifferent to human 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.
For the first time this year in the mountains I observed a flock of red crossbills descend onto a giant lodge pole pine and perform what they do best – that is, prying open the hard, woody scales of the tree’s giant cones for the precious and nutritious seeds within.
The flock, some 20 or so, maybe more, flew noisily overhead one early morning while I sat next to a lodge pole snag on a sage-covered ridge overlooking a mountain stream drainage and aspen draw. Their chirping vocalizations first caught my attention, followed immediately by their feeding actions.
So involved in their foraging activities high in the canopy of the pine tree, and so calm the morning I witnessed their breakfast gathering, that I could clearly hear their distinctive bills prying open the pine cones as they extracted the seeds. Sometimes the birds managed to dislodge a large pine cone causing it to fall to the hard ground in a loud thud. However, none of the birds would follow the cones to the earth. All of them remained in the canopy content on feeding and seemingly arguing over which cones contained the best and most seeds. It was truly a feeding frenzy. And as quickly as it all began, they left in haste for another meal elsewhere.
Also amongst the avian faces in the crowd within the variously vegetated mountain slopes, I was also happy to observe some familiar feathered friends of the forest. Gray jays were ever present and constantly entertaining. Usually arriving in single pairs or small family units, 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 their whistled conversations they would carry on between themselves.
On one memorable occasion I mimicked an individual bird’s two-toned whistle and managed to coax the curious jay to within feet above my head. The bird, once alighted on a nearby limb, curiously examined me from head to toe, possibly wondering what the strange, orange-colored two-legged creature was that talked like a gray jay.
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, croaks, and other guttural calls. 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.
Indeed, my time in the mountains was magnificent in every way once again. It was a time of discovery and relaxation, a time for touching base with wild things, and a time for reflection and appreciation – reasons enough to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.