Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Day Eleven: Rocky Mountain National Park

I met Susan and Mike Molloy through my art. That is true of a lot of people that we visited with this trip, but in this particular case, Susan approached me, wishing to purchase some. They were staying in New Zealand at the time - the beautiful Marlborough Sounds and are both avid bird and wildlife watchers. So, I was very excited that we were invited to spend a night in their lovely house in Estes Park. Estes Park is a town up in the Rockies, and is right near one of the main entrances to the Rocky Mountain National Park. This park had not originally been on our agenda, and we only had half a day to explore it, but it was probably one of the most memorable parts of our trip. Essentially, thanks to the Molloys and their knowledge of the area, and our shared interest in wildlife. They were wonderful hosts and perfect guides.

We arrived at 12-noon right on the nose, after having a late breakfast of donuts down in Westminster. Mmm, donuts, healthy American breakfasts! Upon arriving we were shown our room and offered a choice - relax a while - or go and see some of what Estes Park had to offer.

We chose the latter, naturally.

First stop, a great horned owl nest near the little library. She was difficult to spot, standing sentinel against the cliff, and the elk cow grazing beneath her made us a bit nervous. She had a calf somewhere, and had been a bit aggressive earlier.

Next was the Stanley Hotel, because I had read/seen the Shining and knew that it was the inspiration for it. I had been looking at staying there - but the rooms were somewhat on the pricy side. It is a beautiful hotel, very elaborate on the inside - the original Stanley Steamer is on display there. They do ghost tours too.

One of those rare photos where we are both together!
The garden is filled with whimsical statues. I only just noticed the bobcat.

Then it is up, and into the Rockies. This is Colorado as I had imagined it - high country pine forest, snow capped peaks, rocky plains and wildflowers. The temperature drops as we rise in altitude and snow still lingers along the slopes.

At an overlook, we stop to admire the view and Tim expends the last of my camera's battery life taking photographs of the wildlife (not that I can blame him, I should have charged it). For someone armed with only a point-and-click camera with a slow shutter speed, he manages some suprisingly good shots. Aided somewhat by the confident behaviour of the animals and the Spanish-speaking children that are feeding them nuts. The Gold-mantled squirrel fills his cheeks until they bulge and tiny chipmunks scurry and dart about - close enough to touch but too fast to photograph. Their excitement alerts a Steller's Jay, who flies down to investigate, and several Clark's Nutcrackers follow. The latter are particularly bold and are known theives - they can also be quite aggressive and will steal food from people's hands.
Gold Mantled Ground Squirrel
Clark's Nutcracker
Steller's Jay

One of the most noteable things I have found about the wildlife here is that a lot of it is just not afraid. Squirrels will walk right up to you, begging for scraps, and the jays flutter about as bold and as brash as anything. Admittedly, the birds are quite big - about the size of the European blackbird and of rather sturdier build. Those beaks could be savage. Also, the diversity. There are only a small handful of birds that we have in New Zealand that they also have in America (that is to say, the exact same species, as some have similar names) - the starling, the californian quail, the house sparrow being ones that we have seen. Their magpies, goldfinches, blackbirds, robins and wrens are all quite different and in some cases, not related to ours at all. Continental birds are made of sterner stuff then our weird island-evolved native species.

Anyhow, we continue onwards and a few short (and slightly chilly) walks later we chance upon a plump and rather-cuddly looking marmot. They're bigger than I expected, maybe almost the size of a large kitten, and very fluffy. Quite charasmatic, as far as rodents go. They chase each other about the rocks, sprawling in the sun or digging holes, completely unperturbed by their audience. They are photogenic, but the camera dies shortly after taking this rather fetching picture of one fuzzy rear end:

The Molloys, and Tim (with his ipad) continue to take photos. 
All photos with both Tim and I in them appear courtesy of Mike Molloy and his camera.

The last news that we heard from Christchurch was that they were expecting snow. Often when snow is expected, it fails to arrive, and thus we decided that we should get some photos of the snow too. As it turns out, they had a massive snowdump that resulted in everyone getting a half-snow day.

We take in lunch at the top of the Ridge Road, in a tearooms that is at almost the same altitude as the peak of Mount Cook. The air is frigid and the carpark is exposed and blasted by icy gusts of wind. Huge piles of snow are banked up against the buildings, showing just how thick snowdrifts can get around here. We manage to nab ourselves a window seat just as it is vacated and watch our sandwiches whilst gazing out at steep grassy slopes, patched with snow. Elk are visible through the binoculars. It is very pleasant - until we step outside that is and are almost blown away by the Arctic blast.

After lunch, we jacket up and head along a viewpoint trail looking for another small critter - the pika. Pika are not rodents, but lapines and they hide amongst the rocks. They are known as farmers, because they collect grass stalks and store them in their burrows to dry and provide sustenance over the winter months. Tiny wildflowers colour the dry tundra and signs suggest rather strongly that we should remain on the path. We later see some younger folk breaking this rule, and they get a scolding by the vigilant park rangers.

Heading down to the warmer climes, we pass along a fenceline (I think it's to control the elks' grazing habits) and enter into a woodland area noted for its birding. It does not disappoint. Within mere moments we have seen red-winged blackbirds, robins and swallows - also a small speckled woodpecker that is later identified as a Williamson sapsucker. The Molloys have a very useful App on Mike's cellphone - called iBirdPro, it contains a database of all American species - illustrations and photos, and a form you can fill in with the details so that it will offer suggestions as to what you have actually seen. And, you can also use it as a checklist. After our enthusiasm starts to wane, we are taken to another owl nest - a big, clumsy construct woven into the branches of a pine tree. A number of people cluster around it, some with cameras, others with binoculars. This is the traditional way of finding things that you didn't know were there - look for crowds. If you see a cluster of cars together and people staring at the trees, chances are there's something in it. A large fluffy white chick rests in it. He turns his large head and regards us with solemn eyes, before giving his wing a quick preen and yawning massaively. Above him perches one of his parents, a tall and solemn sentinel.

(taken by Mike Molloy)

(taken by Mike Molloy)
We are then taken to see a hummingbird nest. It is adorably tiny, probably not much bigger than a large thimble. The bird overflows both sides and watches us, but does not stir from her duties. Her nest appears glued to a low-hanging branch, a branch that almost overhangs the driveway into the motel and she is very lucky that it has not been knocked out. I hope her brood does well. We also sneak up onto the balcony to peer into a House Finch nest, its built in the space beneath a planter. The babies stare up at us. Whilst we are trying to locate a second hummingbird nest, Dick Orleans drops by. He is another bird photographer, and has some stunning photos on his facebook page. There has been a golden, or possibly a juvenile bald, eagle sighted on the lake. We should go and take a look.

(taken by Mike Molloy)

First though, we pay a visit to the Oregon state mammal, the beaver. This particular family has chosen to colonise what was once a small stream and is now several bulging pools. There are at least four large dams built across its length, forcing the water over the banks and turning the ground into swamp. The slender saplings, some with their roots in the water, are stripped clear of bark up as high as a beaver can stretch. Others have been cut down and striped entirely, lying white and naked across the water. Whilst we watch these five plump mammals, there comes a low rumble and they dive into the water. Lightning crackles off on the horizon - a dry thunderstorm. After the initial scare, the beavers venture out again and continue in their usual behaviour of eating and collecting. Walking along, we count a total of seven beavers and find their lodge - a structure of logs in the middle of the lake with no visible entrance - the way in is under the water. What clever creatures beavers are - but also potentially destructive. Several swing upriver, the first carrying some bark. He swims, clambers up a dam and collapses back into the water, disappearing into the lodge. Another follows. This one is carrying a branch that is almost a small tree. It is trailing leaves and quite an unwieldy load.
(taken by Mike Molloy)
(taken by Mike Molloy)
For dinner, the Molloys take us to the Baldpate Inn.  If you are ever in Estes Park, I strongly recommend it. It is a delightful and quaint inn, looking pretty much exactly as you would expect, and want, an inn to look. Set back in the woods, it is peaceful and quiet. Hummingbird feeders line the roof, meaning you can watch these busy wee birds as you eat, and there were several seed feeders as well. We pause for a time, watching the adorable little birds flicker around the feeders. They're aggressive wee fellows - even when there are plenty of feeders and plenty of openings, they still quarrel with one another. Tim takes some video footage - they really do move like giant insects.

Inside, we help ourselves from a soup and salad buffet. The food is very good, if a little strange. The soup has two choices - one of which is chilli (actual chilli with beans and mince) and only three salads to choose from, unless you count the additional bowls of leafy greens. One of the salads is a strange glutionous green concotion that looks more like a dessert than a salad. It is rather tasty, however, and we later ask and learn that it is pistachio. Another is a sweet carrot salad, a little like mum's waldorf salad, and the third is fruit. With them we have a choice between cornbread, which has an interesting texture and quite a good taste, muffins and ordinary bread. I sample little bits of everything, which is why I generally avoid buffets! For dessert, they bring out a pie tray and we make our selection. Tim and I split a slice of pecan. It's pretty good, but pecans seem to leave an aftertaste for me.

Baldpate Inn has a key museum. It is bizarre and somewhat impressive. Each key has either a letter or a tag, describing where it came from and what it unlocks. Single keys have been strung along the beams of the ceiling and others are framed on the walls. Some are huge and elaborate, others small and plain. When the Inn first opened, they gave a key to every guest, but with World War 2, the price of metal became too expensive and this practise had to stop. Disappointed, loyal guests (those that visited annually) began bringing keys with them, and giving them to the owners. This became a bit competitive, with each guest trying to outdo the others in terms of elaborate keys, and thus the collection began. It is the largest key collection in the world, and contains more than 20,000 keys.

 I would be hesitant to say that any one day in the USA was the BEST, because we had so many good days and saw something new and interesting every day, but I would definitely say that this day in the Rockies would definitely rank in the Top#5.

Sadly, Estes Park suffered a fire not two weeks after our visit - on the 23rd June (my birthday) and 22 buildings were destroyed, most of them private houses. Luckily, both the Molloys and the Baldpate Inn were unaffected. It has been a bad spring/summer for wildfire in Colorado, and as we were there the High Park fire was working its way steadily closer to the cities of Fort Collins and Loveland.

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