At the mic: Hannah Mirando is seventeen years old and lives in Montauk, NY. She has been birding since the age of five when she got her very first Peterson field guide. When she’s not birding she enjoys hiking, fishing, and photography.

Editor’s Note: Space is still available in both sessions of Camp Colorado 2018! Click here to learn more.
Camp Colorado: birds, friends, and unforgettable memories. I experienced all this and more when I attended the American Birding Association’s Camp Colorado last summer. Camp Colorado is oriented towards kids between the ages of 13-18 who have an interest in birds and general ecology. It is located in Estes Park, Colorado which borders beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park. Thanks to the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society and the help of many others, I was able to explore the Rocky Mountains with Camp Colorado on July 16th through July 22nd, 2017.
The Rocky Mountains are an important area for wildlife and birds because it includes a combination of eastern and western species. Due to its range in elevation, Colorado also encompasses many unique habitats ranging from prairie to alpine tundra. Within each environment is a diverse ecosystem that is formed through the intricate relationships of the organisms living there. Fortunately, many of these important natural places are protected in the form of parks and wildlife areas. Every year, people from across the country come to visit and appreciate Colorado’s wild spaces.
Camp Colorado’s home base is located at the YMCA of the Rockies. The facility includes vibrant woods and valleys that we were able to explore throughout the course of the week. A bowl of mountainous peaks greeted us every morning when we emerged from our dorm rooms, ready for an adventure. After driving from the airport, this was the site of my first Colorado birding experience. A quick walk around the property with some new friends produced Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, and Cassin’s Finch. Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels skittered around the fields and tricolored bumblebees buzzed through the flower beds. Over the course of the week, the YMCA of the Rockies became our gathering place and temporary Rocky Mountain home.
Mornings were early at Camp Colorado. We woke up one day just as the sun was rising to drive over to Wild Basin, a trail within Rocky Mountain National Park. There, we received a chance to see many montane bird species including MacGillivray’s Warbler and Townsend’s Solitaire. A camp favorite were the Black Swifts that flew overhead, lifers for a majority of the group. However, my personal favorite of our Wild Basin excursion was a bird called the American Dipper. Small and brown, it’s not especially exciting looking by any means. However, its behavior is one of the most interesting yet. To feed, the American Dipper literally “dips” itself into the stream.  It dives down underneath swirling rapids and tumultuous waters in order to snatch up aquatic insects and larvae. It spends its entire existence involved with the stream. In fact, the American Dipper rarely strays any more than six feet from the banks of it. Fortunately for us, we were able to get an up close experience with these amazing little birds. We observed two nesting pairs of Dippers who were cooperative enough for the whole group to successfully view and photograph them. One of the nests was exposed enough for us to see the orange mouths of the babies whenever the parents swooped in to feed them.

American Dipper

While we had been doing a fair amount of birding in montane habitat for the first part of camp, we soon took a day trip to the Pawnee National Grassland. The Pawnee is a large expanse of shortgrass prairie that is home to an array of animals. Our birding efforts were rewarded with a variety of species including Burrowing Owl, Lark Bunting, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and over twenty Mountain Plovers! All of these species are able to thrive in the grasslands thanks to the little black-tailed prairie dog. The black-tailed prairie dog is an important keystone animal in places such as the Pawnee. Native grasses are kept short by prairie dog feeding habits, which creates a habitat attractive to birds such as longspurs and Mountain Plovers. In addition, the intricate prairie dog towns provide homes for Burrowing Owls and other wildlife. We even caught a glimpse of an American Badger as it popped its head out of an abandoned prairie dog hole. Prairie dogs also provide a vital food source for predators of the area, such as Ferruginous Hawk and swift fox. Overall, the prairie dog is crucial to the Pawnee Grassland and many prairie habitats like it.

The Pawnee National Grassland

Another biome that we visited was the alpine tundra, at the highest elevations of the Rockies. To get there, we had to drive up Trail Ridge Road, a winding route that slowly climbed up the mountains. On our way, we passed snow caps, krumholtz trees, and herds of elk. Our destination at the end of the road was Medicine Bow Curve, a trail over 11,000 feet high. The stunning views exhibited snow topped peaks and the beginning of the Colorado River. The trail ran through a variety of short vegetation and alpine wildflowers. We were careful to tread lightly, as some of these flowers have taken decades to bloom under the harsh tundra conditions. Just like the flowers, only some birds can live in elevations this high, such as White-Crowned Sparrows, American Pipits, and Clark’s Nutcrackers. Many birders also come to attempt a glimpse at the White-tailed Ptarmigan that can only be seen by an observant eye. This was one of our main target birds on our walk along the trail. We all worked together to scan the rocky mountaintop for ptarmigans, but as time ticked by we began to get discouraged. Finally, after much anticipation, a ptarmigan was spotted in the far distance, followed by her three young chicks. Extremely camouflaged, they were difficult to pick out even with a spotting scope. On our way back down Trail Ridge Road, we also stopped on several outcroppings to view Brown-capped Rosy Finches flittering around the snow caps. Little rodents called American pikas also scurried around the rocks, as yellow-bellied marmots lazily sauntered by. Although the alpine tundra may seem barren to the casual observer, it is actually an environment filled with animals and plants that have evolved to survive its extreme conditions.

Looking for ptarmigan and other alpine birds at Medicine Bow Curve

Camp Colorado gave me the opportunity to see so many amazing new birds. Over the course of the week, I saw 61 lifers, along with lots of other unfamiliar wildlife. However, some of the most important things I took away from camp were the lessons on improving my observational aptitude. Each of our instructors was highly experienced and taught us how to become better naturalists. Through workshops and interactions in the field I learned all types of skills including photography, bird identification, and birding by ear. One of my favorite workshops was focused on sketching birds with instructor Jen Brumfield. Not only did she teach us the mechanics of avian sketching, but also how drawing our observations encouraged a fuller understanding of the species. Although sketching seemed a bit intimidating at first, it proved to be easier than expected. In fact, I found it so enjoyable that I have started my own journal which has helped me to progress significantly. In addition, we were able to do a hands-on bird banding workshop with Scott Rashid, who regularly bands at his long-term banding station at the YMCA. After showing us the proper equipment and procedure to band the different species, several of us got a chance to release birds ourselves. Little is more extraordinary than feeling the heartbeat of a bird within one’s hands, and the flutter of its wings as it flies away.

A Broad-tailed Hummingbird after being banded and before release

I would recommend ABA Camp Colorado to any young birder who is interested in seeing new birds, improving themselves, and making connections with similar people. I have made many valuable bonds with the campers I met there. It was amazing to know that there are other people with the same interests as I, and even more incredible to become friends with them. I am certain that many of these friendships will last my entire lifetime. I am so thankful for the support of my parents, instructors, and organizations such as the ELIAS that enabled me to have this experience. It is something that has influenced my world views and taught me to embrace nature in a new way.

Girl Birders at Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park. Left to right: Eliza Fraser, Madelyne Ray, the author, and Carolina Fraser

This article was featured in November/December issue of The Osprey, the Newsletter of Eastern Long Island Audubon Society.