Forty six years ago, John Denver celebrated the state of Colorado with a mostly incoherent song called ‘Rocky Mountain High’. The lyrics stumble around the mountains, singing about getting crazy, trying to touch the sun and watching fire rain from the sky. Colorado’s Amendment 64 wasn’t implemented until 2014, but ‘friends around the campfire, and everybody’s high’ sounds like Denver and his buddies might have jumped the gun on legal marijuana. Nevertheless, you don’t need drugs to feel high in Colorado. Literally, it’s a high place to hang, with 115 Mountains higher than 10,000 feet and 25 higher than 14,000 feet. Figuratively and emotionally, it’s also easy to feel high in Colorado—vistas are sweeping, the scenery spectacular and summer wildflowers are glorious. The birding isn’t too shabby, either.
Colorado is smaller than Arizona both in area and population, but the birding is surprisingly comparable. According to eBird reports, 500 species have been documented in Colorado compared with 554 in Arizona, almost equal in spite of the regular influx of Mexican birds into Arizona. Reported eBird sightings (checklists) are also comparable, with more than 600,000 in both states. However, for one metric, eBird hotspots, Colorado surpasses Arizona at many sites. For example, Arizona’s Catalina State Park is a single eBird hotspot. Admittedly, the variety of habitat within the 5,000 acre park suggests more hotspots would be in order, but some Colorado sites choke with hotspots, complicating reporting and research. For example, Denver’s Chatfield State Park is less than 4,000 acres (and a reservoir accounts for 1,500 of those acres), but a visiting birder is confronted with no less than 31 eBird hotspots. Regardless, the birding is great, whether you are looking for Mountain Plovers or Lark Buntings (the state bird) on the Pawnee National Grassland, Blue Jays in Denver, Black-billed Magpies anywhere or camouflaged White-tailed Ptarmigans on Mt. Evans.
In addition to Pine Grosbeaks and Gray Jays, Colorado is home to the near-endemic Gunnison Sage-Grouse (next door Utah has some as well), and is one of the few states where you can find the yellow-crowned American Three-toed Woodpecker. Summer in the mountains is the definition of delightful. Colorful birds compete with colorful wildflowers. Mountain Bluebirds, Western Tanagers and the magenta-splashed Calliope Hummingbird, North America’s smallest bird, mix well with lupine, scarlet gilia and the state flower, Colorado blue columbine. One of our favorite high-altitude birds is the White-tailed Ptarmigan, a hearty bird found in alpine tundra year-round. Females are a little less macho than males, wintering just below treeline along willowed streams, while their daredevil mates tough it out above treeline winter and summer. Both sexes are masters of camouflage, turning speckled yellowish black on white in summer, blending perfectly with the rocky tundra, and reverting to pure white to disappear in the high country’s winter snow.
If you’re lucky enough to spend some time in Colorado this summer, try not to touch the sun, avoid crazy and watch out for fire raining from the sky. Spend your time with birds and flowers instead, and any lyrics you write probably will make more sense than John Denver’s.
(The above article first appeared in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona, July, 2018)