Field Notes from the Big Lonesome

Ute Mountain-NE flank            It’s all about scale. Start here. Ute Mountain. High desert steppe. Get out of car, set up tripod and camera. Walk around. Repeat. Five miles, four hours later, trip on basalt stone. Land one step short of a bunch of sticks.

HOLA next among basalt

          Startled bird shoots up. What is that! A horned lark. What is in there? Bend over, peer closer.

HOLA upclose egg in nest

          Two eggs, size of marbles. Shooters, that is, not peewees. It’s all about scale. Here’s my report from the field:

          I left the lower canyon at 5:30 a.m., March 29, and drove to Colorado, then turned back toward the state line and Ute Mountain. Call it a personal quest, to flush out the “Prairie Ghost,”  one of the common names given to Mountain Plover because it blends in so well with its bleak (but beautiful) habitat.  Outside BLM contracted surveys, there are only two sightings posted on eBird in the past ten years on what is now Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

            Yes, a needle-in-a-haystack bird. (But wouldn’t it be cool to see a shorebird in the Monument?)

Mountain Plover migrates in late-March/mid-April from California and Northern Mexico to sites on the high plains. So I’d have a better chance of spotting one out toward Lamar, Colorado. (But wouldn’t it be cool to see a shorebird in the monument, or did I already mention that?)

Mountain Plover prefers the same xeric landscape as bison, prairie dogs, and pronghorns. In fact, I spotted eleven pronghorns on the northside of the mountain. But sadly, no plovers.

The big, lonesome landscape belonged to Horned Lark, flitting up from one clump of grass only to dive down in another. I have to say, Horned Lark has an uncanny resemblance to the antelope—strong  facial markings, “horns,” which are actually feather tufts. I could make out three distinct vocalizations, each a soft tinkling.

Among the seventeen species I recorded were Sage Thrasher, its melodious song reminiscent of a Northern Mockingbird; Mountain Bluebird; a Kestrel kiting in the slight breeze above the sagebrush plain.

Later, I drove State Line Road to its dead end at the rim of the Gorge. There I heard a plaintive Say’s Phoebe , a burbling Rock Wren and, like a siren call, the high, echoing tones of a Red-tail. Then came my First of Spring (FOS) sighting of—amazingly enough—eight Violet Green Swallow. I won’t see them near my home for another three weeks.

Out there along the rim, I turned around in slow-mo, like a movie camera taking a panoramic: moving counter-clockwise from San Antonio Mountain to the Bread Loaf Hills (as I call the Pinon Hills on the west side of Lobatos Bridge); and from there to Blanco Peak and the northern tier of the Sangres and down the length of the Sangres to the Questa peaks and on around to a distant Chiflo Mountain in the south.

I entered my list on eBird. First ever bird list posted for Ute Mountain. I guess that makes me a virgin birder.

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