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Red Rocks and hogback

Fragrant wild plum trees in blossom lined the trail with the hogback and Red Rocks Park in the background.

Colorado's Hawk Highway - 04-24-2024
Photos and text by Dave Parsons

Gurgling through a steep valley near the base of Mount Morrison, the spring meltwater ran through the creek as robins squawked and scrapped in a nearby juniper tree while a fly catching Say’s phoebe lilting call drifted from above. Oregon grape, with their shiny and spiny leaves and small yellow flowers were blooming in clumps in the meadows and white, starlike sandlily flowers were freshly popping up from the soil. Thorny wild plum trees along the trail were in bloom with branches covered in thick white blossoms radiating waves of sweet fragrance which wafted through the red rocks and junipers. Swallows and swifts zoomed past the massive cliff walls of the fountain formation and sometimes inspected a small nook or potential nesting site, landing for a brief moment and then zipping back into the air. Spotted towhees sifted for insects underneath shrubs and repeatedly called out to each other with their catlike trilling "reee reee che-e-e-e." Lifting off from the top of a juniper, an American Kestral took flight over the trail and landed on another wobbly juniper top further away from human trespassers. Higher up the trail with his descending notes, a canyon wren chimed in from his morning rock perch. A gray vireo patrolling the rocks dove behind a juniper as I passed by. With the nesting area now vacant, in past years, great horned owls made their home in the cliff face of one of the nearby rock formations.
 
painted lady

Soaking up the warmth of the sun on a chilly morning, a painted lady butterfly perches on wild plum blossoms. Spread worldwide, the species has one of the longest migration routes from Europe to Africa across the Sahara Desert traveling about 15,000 kilometers. In North America, they migrate northwards from Mexico and the southwest throughout the entire country and into Canada.

Turning left onto the Morrison Slide Trail, the wild plums became thick and there was a literal humming of activity as the steep hillside began to warm and bees of all sizes were attracted to the enticing blooms and their wonderful scent. A long distance migrator, a colorful orange painted lady butterfly, a California tortoiseshell and an anglewing butterfly with gray camouflaged undersides warmed themselves on the rocks and soil along the trail. When disturbed, they zoomed up and down the trail corridor lined with blossoms like a butterfly highway. Climbing the steep and rocky switchbacks, I came onto a plateau like shelf on the mountain which overlooked much of the hogback with the distant town of Morrison nestled in between the ridges with the Bear Creek and valley below. Green Mountain, a round conglomerate mass covered in green grass rose just a few of miles to the east past the noisy highway.

In a rocky field dotted with spiny cactus and yuccas, four scruffy, winter worn, female mule deer grazed the fresh spring green grass near a mushroom shaped juniper tree, trimmed by the nibbling of numerous deer over the years. It was then a huge osprey cruised 50 feet over me heading north. Surprised by his appearance this far away from water, I took a few quick photos and continued to hike across the plateau. A few minutes later, jumping from rock to rock on the trail, I was slow to pull the camera out as a pair of what looked like prairie falcons accelerated northward towards Interstate 70.

Pulling up to a comfortable rounded rock, I took off my fanny pack and sat down looking southwards as I kept my camera out. Five turkey vultures circling in the warming currents glided past, riding the invisible air cushion along the ridge, again heading northwards. Hugging the mountainside, what looked to be a Swainson’s hawk, cruised over the ponderosa pines and mountain mahogany. What came next was a constant stream of red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks and broad-winged hawks. For an hour I watched them pass, some circling to gain altitude, some extending their talons mid-air reaching for a potential mate. Other birds flew in groups, together in one moment and then separating into their individual paths. A raven, broad winged hawk and red-tailed hawk circled together for a few moments and then drifted northward on separate paths. Distant screeching of a pair of circling red-tails traveled across the mountain. Looking south, more dots in the sky were circling. Seeing just a fraction of the traffic moving northwards made me wonder what else was making the journey. By now, the deer had moved into the shade of the trees further up the hillside.

hawks

This was one of those rare times I had witnessed a sliver of one of those thousands-of-years-old wildlife processions of variety and numbers. The occasion made me wonder what the migration across the state would have looked like a millennia ago. The annual northwards migration along the Front Range mountains along the Central Flyway is nothing like the migrating clouds of raptors in Costa Rican or Indian hot spots, but, was a short moment in time during a morning hike when wild animals and the natural ecosystem still seemed to function properly in these days of crazy climate change and biodiversity loss.

Descending the rocky trail, I inhaled the blossoms and tried to photograph the now energetic butterflies sipping their nectar. Human traffic was picking up now making it virtually impossible to focus on the skittish insects.

Seemingly oblivious to the wonderful smell of wild plum blossoms, colorful insects and surrounding events and beauty, trail runners, mountain bikers, chatty pairs of hikers, people on phones and dog walkers with packs of four and five various dogs rapidly worked their way up and down the popular trail in tail wagging packs as I headed back down the mountain.

Watching a bumblebee bounce through the blossoms, I was forced to listen to two passing women talk about various vehicle attributes. Another passerby talked loudly about their job on their cellphone down most of the mountain. I hoped at least a few people would disconnect from their busy brains and actually be present during their trail time and perhaps stop, take a moment and soak in the fleeting natural beauty. Finally, after greeting yet another group in the center of the wild plums, I said "hi" to a passing hiker and "don’t these smell great!?" She replied "I wish I could package the smell," something I also wish I could do every spring.

Passing the ever present plastic dog poop bags on the side of trail, I repeatedly had to stop on the steep path looking upwards to inspect the sky, still excited to have seen so many raptors. Near the trailhead as swifts and swallows swooped overhead and among the cliffs, a red admiral butterfly landed and sipped minerals along the creek as two F-16 fighters banked heavily eastwards, jet engines roaring over the nearby Red Rocks Amphitheater.
 
   
 




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