Trip to the Rockies – Western Colorado

September 21-24, 2020 ~ We continued our 3-week road trip through the Rocky Mountains, crossing the Continental Divide toward western Colorado. This side of Colorado is often unrepresented in the glossy brochures. It was exciting to see the birds and animals that had adapted so well to the extremely arid and high-altitude landscapes. Our route took several days, and included side trips and back-tracking, but this map shows our general locations.

Google map screenshot of western Colorado showing Ouray and Black Canyon of the Gunnison locations.

The picturesque town of Ouray, Colorado is squeezed into the valley between enormous granite mountains. Its turbulent geological history is reflected in the names of attractions such as Cascade Falls Park, Ouray Hot Springs, Box Canyon Park.

The Cascade Falls Park visitor’s center is tucked under the overhanging gray cliff walls, and it was dark under the pine and fir trees at the foot of the sheer mountainside. I was probably at the limit of the ISO for cropped photos, as a fair degree of graininess is visible.

Proud Steller’s Jay, central mountain variety
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 4000

This Steller’s Jay, Cyanocitta stelleri macrolopha, provided a lively welcome at the visitor center. He darted first one way then another, up on a branch, down to the ground, always in motion, giving me a complete workout.

Don’t mess with me, mate!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 12800

There are 16-18 sub-species (or “races”) of Steller’s; experts don’t always agree, and there is some confusion since this bird successfully cross-breeds with the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, common here in Texas and up through the western US including Colorado.  Wikipedia and Whatbird have more details. I was happy just to enjoy his lively antics and bright color.

Just lookin’ for a treat
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1250 sec. f/7.1 ISO 4000

His triangular crest consists of flexible feathers which twist in the air as he leaps and flies, and which he can lower, or thrust upwards if startled or threatened.

Male Cassin’s Finch puffed up and ready to sing
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 6400

I spotted a quick flash of soft color, and found what I assumed was a House Finch all puffed up and ready to sing. I was mistaken. The straight (not curved) conical bill, slightly peaked (not smooth) crown of his head, smooth (not heavily streaked) body, and heavily (not minimally) notched tail mark this as a Cassin’s Finch. For disambiguation (yes, it’s a real word), see this comparison.

Shy little Orange-crowned Warbler, Ouray Colorado
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1250 sec. f/7.1 ISO 2000

On the trail up to the falls this little fellow peered around the weathered scrub oak branch at me, and then quickly hid on the opposite side. I believe this is the Orange-crowned Warbler, whose range map shows they have breeding locations throughout western Colorado.

I thought it might be the female/immature Yellow Warbler, but All About Birds emphasized the Yellow Warbler’s large wide-open black eyes, while the Orange-crowned Warbler has a “broken eye-ring bisected by a faint eyeline”, which is what we see in this bird. What we don’t see is the “orange crown”. Apparently, it is rarely visible – you have to see the bird in exactly the right light, at the right angle.

Gray-headed Junco filling up on grains in Ouray, Co
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1250 sec. f/7.1 ISO 4000

An energetic Gray-headed Junco was hopping around feasting on small seeds which spilled from the bird feeder at the Welcome Center. I won’t even go into Juncos. All About Birds says there are some 15 races of Juncos, and that more variations can be caused by interbreeding with other sparrows. 

He came really close, apparently used to the presence of camera-clicking tourists. Aren’t you glad I had that f-stop cranked down to 7.1; by the sharpness of detail in the ground, I can see I only had about a 3 inch depth-of-field, and even then he was close enough to me that his tail is out of focus.

Chipmunk feasting on maple seeds
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 6400

It’s always fun to see other wildlife. This chipmunk reclined in a small Rocky Mountain Maple tree and stuffed his cheeks with its seeds. And speaking of a tail out of focus, I can tell I need a lot more practice with setting the f-stop on the fly.

After Ouray, we visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison, one of the longest, steepest, and deepest canyons in North America. I was eager to see the swifts, which are common hunters in that canyon; the great crevasse provides plenty of room for their swooping and swirling flight patterns.

Yep, that light tan smudge is a Swift, ignored by my autofocus
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640

 I had not appreciated the difficulty of focusing on a small bird zooming past a rock face at 50-100 miles per hour; my camera’s autofocus kept latching onto the looming cliff, leaving the bird a soft smudge. But I persevered…

White-throated Swift, almost in focus for a split second
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640

…and I finally got him! This is a White-throated Swift, Aeronautes saxatalis, flying through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado. Don’t you love that Latin name, Aeronautes; these birds certainly deserve the title for their flying prowess.

It was easier to catch them overhead with no competing background, and fortunately they flew by continuously. Swifts have tiny feet, which are only suitable for clinging to vertical surfaces; they spend their entire day in the air, landing only to sleep at night. Eating, bathing, grooming, mating, all are done on the wing.

White-throated Swift showing off in the distance
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640

These swift shots are technically poor, but they represent a small victory for me. I’ve been practicing a trick for quickly focusing on flying birds.

First, I focus on some large stationary object such as a tree or rock at approximately the same distance as I expect the birds to be flying (no easy matter in itself, when the ground drops precipitously down 2000 feet from your position). Then, when I move the lens to point at the bird, I can (and the autofocus computer can) see him well enough to follow his flight path, and quickly refine the focus, so that I can shoot.

Without this step, I often wind up after shooting a subject only 20 feet away, swinging up to catch a bird 500 feet away in the sky, resulting in seeing nothing through the lens but a uniform fuzzy blue field. The autofocus will dial in and out trying to “see” my target, but by that time, the bird has flown out of my field of view, and the shot is lost.

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore!”
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640

We had one final flyby as the sun sank towards the western horizon. This raven passed low and slow, giving me an opportunity to really appreciate him as the classic symbol of doom and destruction. Though it is difficult to tell the difference between crows and ravens, I managed to also get a silhouette shot of his definitive triangular tail as he soared away from me, so I can say this is a Common Raven, Corvus corax.

Happy photographer and hubby at Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Galaxy S10e phone photo

Autumn leaf colors were at their height all around us on the western side of Colorado. Aspen displayed gold and apricot, while scrub oak ranged through yellow, copper and auburn, as we closed out another gorgeous day.

8 thoughts on “Trip to the Rockies – Western Colorado”

  1. Such a variety of winged wonders- many I have never seen here, east of the divide. Fascinating too that some of them interbreed- I never knew that.
    Me thinks ye have a highly refined birders eye, to spy so many little birdies, Matie!

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  2. Great photos as always! I loved the midflight one of the swift – such a crisp shot against the blue blue sky. And the chipmunk was super cute but also just a great shot too – love the depth of field, looks like something that could easily be found in a nature magazine! But my favorite shot is the last one – great smiles on awesome people! Good to see you both having fun! Love to you both!

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    1. Thanks Karen! That swift against the blue sky is cropped down to approx 5% of the total photo area; I was very lucky to get his eye clear when it is only a handful of pixels across.

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