My week at Camp Colorado started off a few hours behind schedule. After my brother and I boarded our plane, we learned that the plane had a broken seal, and would not be flying us to Denver. We switched planes and got about an hour and a half out, when an elderly woman’s medical emergency turned us back to Chicago. Finally, we landed in Colorado three hours late, met counselor Bill Schmoker at our gate, and set off for home base – the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park. Air Force One landing in Denver slowed our departure from the airport a bit, but we finally made it to the YMCA, to wild applause from the rest of camp.
That was where any lingering anxiety evaporated. From then on, Camp Colorado was an unforgettable whirlwind of amazing birds, amazing people, and amazing experiences. As soon as we exited the car, I realized the YMCA was nothing like the one at home; this YMCA had over 800 acres, a banding station, and numerous patches of bird-rich montane forest. Not a minute after we arrived, as we were walking to our meeting room for introductions, I found myself in a conversation with another young birder about young birder club newsletters. Before long, we all knew each others names, as well as a whole bunch of corny jokes. Twenty-one young birders from Massachusetts to California attended 2014 Camp Colorado. Camp Director Jennie Duberstein, Bill Schmoker, David La Puma, and Jen Brumfield were the instructors. The intern, Camp Colorado alumnus Marcel Such, completed our quintet of counselors. Below is a summary of some of my favorite experiences of camp:
July 9, 2014
Our first full day was montane birding. Joined by Guest Instructors Jeff and Liz Gordon, we took a quick ride in the two vans to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park and spent the morning hiking through montane coniferous woods alongside a raging river. This is perfect habitat for American Dippers. We hadn’t gotten too far before one was spotted – bouncing around rocks and diving into the rapids. What nobody expected, however, was for the dipper to turn into one of the top moments of the trip by perching on the closest rock and preening for fifteen minutes! Also exciting were a male Western Tanager that provided excellent (if brief) views and a Townsend’s Solitaire that flew by the van.
We were at our dorms before the afternoon presentation when Jen noticed a Northern Goshawk disappear over a hill. The word “goshawk” had barely passed her lips when she took off in its direction; we quickly followed. Everyone was out of breath by the time we got over the hill, but we were rewarded with a goshawk view for the ages. The bird pranced around a grassy patch like a velociraptor as it stalked ground squirrels, and eventually stopped under a truck and panted. We watched it in a general state of disbelief.
The goshawk almost made us late for a banding presentation with Scott Rashid, an expert bird bander who frequently bands at the YMCA. We watched the banding of several birds, including Broad-tailed Hummingbirds and Black-headed Grosbeak, and many of us released a banded bird. I released a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, which lay still in my palm until Scott bumped my hand. Bill wrapped up the day with an informative presentation on the diverse ecosystems of Colorado.
Our second full day of birding was the highly-anticipated alpine birding. Most of this birding is above the treeline, and some locations had elevations above 12,000 feet. We entered this tundra habitat with hopes of White-tailed Ptarmigan and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. Ptarmigan was the number one target bird for many campers. Not even one minute after we hopped out of the vans, Jeff picked out a rosy-finch flitting about a rock pile. We set off looking for ptarmigans, which look an awful lot like moving rocks. Luckily, they couldn’t escape twenty-eight pairs of binoculars. Before long, we spotted a pair that provided absolutely stellar looks. We relaxed with the ptarmigans for quite some time before heading back down the mountain. Along the way we got better looks at rosy-finches and also saw an up-close Clark’s Nutcracke, and a Common Raven chasing a Golden Eagle. Equally impressive were the mammals: Elk around every corner, and pikas – arguably the cutest creatures known to Earth. The pikas spent their time scurrying around rocks, occasionally screeching, “MEEP!” Cue squeals of delight.
Once we were back at the Y, we split up to go to either Jen’s field sketching workshop or Bill’s photography workshop, which were both offered again a few days later. I went to Jen’s workshop. We met up at the banding station and found a mixture of bouts of rain and fantastic bird behavior, including a cooperative male Black-headed Grosbeak and a feisty Rufous Hummingbird that aggressively chased off every other hummingbird. These were perfect sketching opportunities. Thanks to Jen, my field journaling abilities increased dramatically over the session. After dinner, we went back into the mountains to go owling with Scott Rashid. We found a Great Horned Owl, but also enjoyed the tranquility of the mountains at night.
July 11, 2014
We headed back to Rocky Mountain National Park for another day of montane birding at a comparable elevation to the first day, but in somewhat different habitats. Highlights included a Dusky Flycatcher on its nest, numerous Western Tanagers, and unusually cooperative Western Wood-Pewees.
We had some time to spare in the afternoon, so the instructors took us to Fawnbrook Inn – a cozy little spot with a multitude of hummingbird feeders. The feeders brought in at least one hundred Broad-taileds, as well as several Rufouses. Most exciting, however, was the smallest bird in North America – the Calliope Hummingbird, which is three inches long and weighs a tenth of an ounce. Two or three Calliopes made a few visits to the feeders. Exhilarated by the spectacle, we returned to the Y.
Upon our return, we learned that we were in for a surprise before dinner. Intrigued, we followed the instructors down a path behind our dorms. They stopped in front of a group of shrubs without a word. Quickly, we realized that there was a breeding pair of MacGillivray’s Warblers in the bush – a lifer for almost everyone, and a bird we had missed at Rocky Mountain. “Surprise!” said Jennie.
July 12, 2014
My alarm rang at 3:30 AM, marking the start of a sixteen-hour birding marathon – the first annual Camp Colorado Big Day! The evening before we submitted written guesses for our big day totals to the instructors (the closest guessers received prizes). We hit the road at 4:00 AM for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Pawnee National Grassland, accompanied by Guest Instructor Ted Floyd. When we arrived we were greeted by one of Pawnee’s signature species – the rare Mountain Plover. Pawnee’s shortgrass prairie proved quite productive. Highlights included Burrowing Owls, countless Lark Buntings, displaying McCown’s Longspurs putting on a show, and six species of quality sparrows. We even picked up a few eastern species at the picnic area, such as Eastern Screech-Owl and Orchard Oriole. Just as impressive were the non-birds. Pronghorn were abundant, my van got a glimpse of a badger, and we all enjoyed a horned toad. Perhaps the most surprising species of the trip, though, was a mammal: a scope view of a family of Swift Foxes, a Camp Colorado first. On our way out, a Ferruginous Hawk flew past – an excellent species to round out our prairie bird selection.
We stopped at a Fossil Creek Reservoir on the way back to the Y where we found some new species – one Clark’s and 68 Western Grebes, plus a Bald Eagle and hundreds of swallows. Our list when we returned to the Y was 74. Jennie set a deadline: all big day species had to be seen before 7:15 PM. We bolted our dinner while skimming checklists to see which species we could pick up. At 6:35, we raced to the coniferous woods to pick up as many species as possible and hit the jackpot. Almost all of the common Y species showed up, and Jen picked out a flyover nutcracker. The grand total was 89 species – higher than almost anyone was expecting. The first Camp Colorado Big Day was a great success. To wrap up the day, David gave us a fascinating presentation on his work with Project SNOWStorm, which tracked the Snowy Owl irruption in the winter of 2013-14.
July 13, 2014
For the final full day of camp, we visited two foothills locations in the Boulder area, joined by Marcel’s brother (Camp Colorado alum and past Young Birder of the Year winner), Joel Such. This elevation had a markedly different set of birds from what we had seen before. My personal highlights included three Virginia’s Warblers, a dozen Lazuli Buntings, adorable Bushtits visiting their nest, and several wacky-voiced Yellow-breasted Chats.
In the afternoon, we got a chance to visit the workshop we hadn’t gone to three days earlier. I attended Bill’s photography workshop. There, I learned a lot of tips and even got some one-on-one advice about improving my photography and making the most of my camera. We also oohed and aahed over Bill’s excellent photography portfolio.
The evening program was our longest and most personal. The instructors started by telling us some about themselves and how they got to where they were; we had the opportunity to ask them for advice. After that, we were forced to come to terms with the fact that camp was ending, and we gave final words and reflections on what the week meant to us. Finally, we raced back to our dorms, staying up as late as reasonably possible and savoring camp for as long as we could.
The birds and wildlife alone would have been enough to make Camp Colorado a great week. To me, however, they were only part of the experience. Just as important were the bonds and connections created – between young birders, and young birders and adult mentors. I wasn’t surprised that the group got along, but I was surprised at just how well we gelled. On several instances, we marveled at how the dreaded unenthusiastic kid who brings the group down simply was not present. We bonded over our shared passion which helped us bond over other things as well. There are many memories completely unrelated to birds from camp that have stuck with me – laughing at terrible movie trailers, for instance, choreographing a dance to a song called “Bird Machine,” and jubilantly skipping back to the dorms after dark. I suspect most of us remember when – after someone found a goshawk, and we all rushed out of our seats in the dining hall – a confused man shrieked, “What’s going on?!” My favorite memories, though, are of being able to share fantastic wildlife experiences with people just as excited about it as I was.
The leaders were just as important in making Camp Colorado so great. All of the instructors were knowledgeable, inspiring, encouraging, fun to be around, and supportive of the campers. I learned a ton from each of them, and it is thanks to them that camp was such a success. I encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to attend Camp Colorado. It was the week of a lifetime, and I emerged a better birder.