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Deep snows lead to elusive birds

Dan England

GEORGETOWN ” Kent Rider went up to Gunella Pass outside of Georgetown this summer, braving the terrain where two of the state’s fourteeners loom, in the hopes of seeing a ptarmigan.

Rider, 25, of Fort Collins is morphing into a bird watcher, and he really likes the grouse birds, including the ptarmigan, he says. Some have spotted ptarmigan up there, as they do hang out in alpine areas, but that day, he went home disappointed, he says.

“I didn’t know where to look,” Rider said.



Rider isn’t the first to miss the birds. They don’t have regular hangouts, even in their natural habitat, and the birds are hard to spot, with feathers that change color to match the seasons. In fact, they could give lessons to Green Berets on the art of camouflage.

Then Rider heard about a Colorado Division of Wildlife project that brings volunteers to the pass to count ptarmigans. And if Rider was willing to hike around the alpine terrain in the summer, he could brave it in the winter. He had snowshoed a little bit, he says.



“But certainly never up above timberline like that,” Rider said. “It was really cool up there.”

The area was cool, chilly and downright cold, actually, with piles of snow causing them to sink to their waists at times. But Rider had so much fun, he wants to bring his girlfriend, Lindsey, next time, he says.

“We got to see some ptarmigans,” he said, with a twinge of joy in his voice. “In fact, we were right up close to them.”



‘Sinking up to my neck’

The division of wildlife takes advantage of healthy volunteers willing to trade energy and brave the difficult conditions of winter mountaineering for a chance to see the elusive birds. The work is not easy, says Lou Hegedus, a 63-year-old Fort Collins resident.

“In fact, it’s a killer,” Hegedus says.

This, of course, is coming from a guy who has snowshoed quite a bit and also spent time in other rough areas counting waterfowl, eagles and sage grouse as a volunteer. But this may have been the toughest terrain he’s faced just to count birds, Hegedus says.

“I was sinking up to my neck,” he says. “But it was a really nice way to get out and do something interesting.”

Hegedus, too, got something out of the deal: He enjoys wildlife photography and got some good pictures of the white birds in their snowy backdrop, an even more striking photo than in the summer, when the birds are a splotchy mix of brown, white and a little black to match the season’s terrain.

The work may be tough, but it’s also important, said Rick Hoffman, a Fort Collins resident and retired avian researcher who runs the project for the division. The pass, which sits below Mount Bierstadt, at 14,060 feet, and Mount Evans, at 14,264 feet, is one of the largest wintering areas in Colorado for ptarmigan. Hoffman has studied the birds there since the early 1970s.

The area has always concerned Hoffman because it is popular and accessible, he says. Even in the winter, the spot is a favorite for hikers, and Bierstadt, with its gentle terrain and easy drive to the trailhead for all vehicles, is one of the few relatively accessible fourteeners in the winter. Some, in fact, consider it the easiest fourteener to hike in that season.

As the area increased in popularity, along with a huge increase in the number of those climbing fourteeners, Hoffman wanted some recent counts to see what effect the crowds had on the birds.

“We were concerned, but we didn’t have any information we needed to tell us if we should be or not,” he said. “Once we get this project completed, we can continue to monitor them.”

Pondering protections

If Hoffman does see some effects, he may be able to persuade the U.S. Forest Service to close certain areas during the wintering months or simply restrict hikers to the trails already in place, he says. Hoffman is in his third year of the project and plans on doing one survey a month until March, he says.

Even Hoffman, at times, has trouble finding the birds, and sometimes his volunteers go home disappointed. But more often than not, once he picks up the birds’ tracks, he follows the signs until he finds a flock. That’s what makes the project so difficult ” in order to do an accurate count, his volunteers must forgo the trails and head into the sea of snow once they are assigned a square mile to observe.

“It can be demanding,” said Dave Dolton, of Lakewood, a volunteer who also works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “One time last year, I was unable to complete the survey. I couldn’t negotiate the deep powder.”

But that’s exactly why Dolton enjoys volunteering for the project, he says.

“Last year was the first time I was able to see a ptarmigan up close,” Dolton said. “It was a good opportunity. I’m certainly not going up there on my own.”

Vail, Colorado


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