18 December 1999
by Phil Davis
In February 1997, my wife (Barbara) and I tried for the ptarmigan on our Rosy-finch/Bohemian Waxwing trip to Colorado. 1997 was an El Niño winter and Guanella Pass looked a lot different than it does this year. In '97, the plowed snow banks are the side of road were 10 feet high and, yes, there were some willows in the pass ... a few ... a very few. Everything was heavily snow covered and the only way to traverse the area would have been by snow shoes (which we were not prepared to do). Earlier this December (1999), I had checked with Norm Ethral and others to see if any ptarmigans had been see this winter. It seems that none had been reported. Since I had business in Colorado Springs on Monday, the 20th, we decided to make a good of it, anyway.
We drove up the 11-12 miles from Georgetown and arrived at the pass. This December (1999)--a La Niña year--there were no snow banks on the side of the road and, lo and behold, the pass was covered with willows! We spent a fair amount of time scanning from the roadside, hoping for a easy tick. Using the information in the ABA/Lane's Guide and information from Norm, here's what we did ...
Heading from Georgetown, we parked at the second (lower) parking area (both on the left). We walked through the opening in the fence at the "Rosalie Trailhead" sign at the lower end of the parking lot. The Rosalie Trailhead is just immediately to the right of another trail that is marked "trail closed" "tundra restoration". We met up with David Mark of Buffalo who accompanied us out on the trail. From the trailhead, the trail we took goes up the rise that sits in front of you. About 1/8 mile up the hill, there is a large brown "Mt. Evans Wilderness" sign and to the left of it is a small, rectangular "603" sign marking a trail to the left. These signs are both visible from the parking lot. Take the "603" trail to the left. It continues to gently climb the east side of the rise and the willow valley is on you left. We walked the trail for maybe 1/2 to 2/3 of a mile, scanning the willows for birds. David returned, since his primary quest were Rosy-Finches in Georgetown. Barbara and I continued on the path.
Some notes on the conditions. It was very cold and windy, with intermittent snow. When we returned to the car, the thermometer read 16 degrees F. I estimated the wind as gusting to 20 mph and occasionally to 30. At times, the weather was clear, but as the afternoon wore on, the intermittent snow and wind increased. The trail was thinly covered with snow in places, but in other places the snow was ankle to mid-thigh deep. Fortunately, I brought my parka with me and was prepared with long johns and polartek pants in addition to my blue jeans. My parka had a hood, but Barbara's did not and she paid the price since her neck and side of her face was exposed.
Shortly after David left, about 2 pm, we saw another person walking towards us. Obviously a birder, we thought ... who else would be out these conditions? The gentleman ("Steve" from Boulder) reached us ... he was not a birder ... he was just out for a day walk and was hoping to get a picture of Mt. Evans (forget it, due to the weather). David has passed him and told him we were birders. As we were talking to Steve, describing what we were looking for, he said, "There's something white up ahead on the trail". We got on it and sure enough, there were two White-tailed Ptarmigans on the trail about 40 yards ahead of us. We got good looks at them for about 15-20 seconds, and then, even though we had not moved to approach them, they both flew. They flew down the hill and to the left (back toward our direction) and we got good looks of them in flight ... all white--no black on the wings or tail--and the black eyes and beak were quite visible. They disappeared behind some willows. Where this occurred was where the clumps of evergreens start to become more dense and taller (on the left--downhill--side of the trail), compared to the scatted few evergreens that occur before this point.
We walked about another 100 yards and turned around. Shortly, at about 2:30 pm, two ptarmigans flew, downhill and from right to left, for maybe another 100 yards. We figured these were the same birds. However, after walking further, we spotted six ptarmigans down in the valley flying from right to left ... heading north. They flew, maybe, 1/4 to a 1/3 of a mile before they put down, out of view.
We did not expect to find these birds flying ... but we'll take them anyway we can get them. And thanks to Steve for the heads up on spotting them. He noted that what really got his attention was that they were moving across the trail "up the hill" and into the wind. He said that if they had been moving with the wind, he probably would not have noticed anything unusual.
Despite the cold and terrible conditions, we were thrilled. The birds were much larger than we expected ... and they are very beautiful!
PS - The next day, on the way to Colorado Springs, we stopped at the Garden of the Gods, trying to find Pinyon Jay for Barbara. No luck, but we did get to see all five subspecies/forms of juncos (Oregon, Pink-sided, Slate-colored, Gray-headed, and White-winged!)