Autumn Coming On

gothic mountain, autumn aspen
Aspen Sunstar : Prints Available

Just before dipping behind Gothic Mountain, the setting sun illuminates a stand of red-tipped autumn aspen. Aspen trees are colonial and colors vary greatly, from typical gold to oranges, reds, even purple. The range of color and contrast is on full display in Colorado’s high country, beginning in mid-September, with the transition moving south into early October. 

Hiking with my friend/web guru/mountain photographer Jack Brauer, Jack asks “what do you think it is that makes aspens so brilliant in fall?” Jack has studied aspens as much as anyone I know, so I figured his query was rhetorical. But we launched into a discussion about leaves, mountain light, and complimentary colors that lasted about a half mile, everything leading to the same place – translucence holds light while letting it pass through, giving aspens a luminescence unlike anything else in our part of the natural world. Autumn is an ephemeral miracle. While we’re still gobbling up the last of Palisade peaches, aspen trees are changing to gold, orange, and deep red. Some aspen colonies (aspens are a colonial species sprouting from the same source) are withering with fungus, their leaves dropping early by our human calendar, adding a smell of pungent loam to forest walks. Songbirds are gone and we await the arrival of winter raptors and diving ducks. I look up each day, hoping for a glimpse of sandhill cranes headed south on a migration course, riding thermals to their southern home at Bosque Del Apache NWR in New Mexico. It’s a remarkable time of year alright; so predictable, yet each day holds a promise to awaken our senses, all of them. Continue reading “Autumn Coming On”

Peek At Longs – Independence Day

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Longs Peak (14,255′) and Mount Meeker (13,911′) catch morning light from Estes Cone, casting a long shadow on Longs’ flank. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Alarm and coffee pot spring to life at 1:30 a.m., an uncivil time of day by any measure. Grumbling and light-headedness aside, backpacks are tossed in the car for a drive amongst folks just trying to get home. It’s exhilarating to reach the trailhead a few hours before dawn, before birds wake, and set out to follow a cone of light through a black forest. Our destination is Estes Cone, an 11,002′ bump on the Estes Park skyline with a commanding view of Longs and Meeker. A nearly full moon barely penetrated the dense forest as we trekked on good trail that split from Longs’ standard climbing route. The finishing ascent rose 1,000 feet to lichen-covered stone just above the forest canopy, revealing Longs’ eastern face. Rising above a low cloud bank, the sun graced Longs and Meeker in warm light, showing features of the main climbing route, The Trough still clogged with deep snow, guarding the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. First climbed by John Wesley Powell’s group in an 1868 expedition, Longs is a sentinel in stone that can be viewed from many angles and worthy of a photographic study – and an alpine start or two.

Winter Lingers

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Patterns of snow fill every couloir while stoney ridges protrude like ribs on (L to R) Torreys Peak (14,267′), Grays Peak (14,270′), and Grizzly Peak (13,428′). Colorado’s wet spring raised the late winter snowpack on the Front Range from around 50% in April to 300% in some areas. We hope it predicts an amazing wildflower season.

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We have so much snow! The south and east facing slopes are holding deep snowpack that supplies all of thirsty Denver’s water supply for the season. This view is to the northwest across Loveland Pass to Mount of The Holy Cross (14,009′) named for the cross couloir on the rock face. Will Denver residents become complacent and forget the recent decade of drought? My brief prediction is an unfortunate yes.

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Loveland Sunrise – warm morning light paints the high ridge above Loveland Pass from Point 12,915′ where a lingering snow cornice leads to Lenawee Mountain (13,204′). Marla says the mountains will “officially open on July 4 ~ just like they always do”. 🙂

Prairie Merlin

Female Prairie Merlin, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife

Prairie merlin hunting from a brush perch on a chilly winter morning. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO

These small falcons look like tiny missiles while hunting. Preying mostly on small birds, the powerful merlin is fast and muscular; able to turn at very high speed in mid-air. The prairie (Richardson’s) merlin is 10″ tall and weighs about 6 ounces.

Return To Roost

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An adult bald eagle returns to roost, one winter evening. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Colorado.

There are sixty or so bald eagles roosting at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR this winter, right on the edge of Denver. The eagles come back every year, using the tall cottonwoods for hunting perches to pick off a prairie dog or cottontail rabbit, and sometimes feast on winter-killed white-tail and mule deer. The eagles that return from Canada and Alaska join a resident pair that have a gigantic nest in a cottonwood gallery forest located in the middle of the refuge. Bald eagles are roost communally, and you can see them leaving the roost in blue-black predawn light, threes or four at a time traveling low across the refuge. They return in the evening, generally one at a time and over the course of an hour or two, until a few cottonwoods at the roost site are full of bald eagles, like dark ornaments. They chatter and fight for a favorite branch to spend the long winter night. Some of the eagles stay on the refuge to hunt, using cottonwood trees and decommissioned telephone poles. Others leave, possibly to fish along the South Platte River. Photographically, it’s somewhat of a mystery how to best position myself to make images of the eagles leaving and returning. I do my best not to bump them off of loafing perches – they spend up to 90% of their day loafing, or resting to conserve energy in winter. But it’s maddening to see them flying all over the refuge, just high enough or or too distant to photograph. For this image, I stood sentinel in a forest of cottonwoods where I’ve seen eagles graze the tops on their evening flight to roost. This particular eagle flew right over my head, a bit higher than I would have liked, but still thrilling. If you remember the days of DDT and how rare and endangered bald eagles were in the ’60’s and ’70’s, it’s still a rush to see one up close.