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Vail Daily column: Look up and discover something new

Alex Hamilton
Curious Nature

Without having thought much of it, I’ve spent a lot of my life looking down. For the things which I love to do most, looking down isn’t so unreasonable: I’ve always needed to see what’s downhill of the tips of my skis, which hazards await my feet on the trails and where I should direct the front wheel of my bike. Plenty of people do the same, and there isn’t anything wrong with it.

But recently, I started looking up.

Depending on what piques your interest, everyone will notice something different when they lift their chin and gander at the sky. For me, it is two wings, a slender body and a pointy beak. Its shadow and color and movement and sound and grace.



They aren’t just a pretty voice: Mountain chickadees, despite their professed love of cheeseburgers, store seeds for the winter in thousands of hiding spots, all of which they remember.

Listening Up



I suppose that I started listening up long before I ever thought of looking that way. The sound which defined my childhood in the Sierra Nevada was the whimsical, high-pitched cheeseburger call that would ring through my bedroom at 4:30 every morning through the spring and summer. I stopped short of thinking of that sound as anything more than that — a nice sound.

I came to love birds and bird identification for a couple of reasons. Partly, it was out of necessity: I found myself employed in a position that demanded I have a familiarity with local avian life. I was also in a new place, and found myself wanting to know all that I could about that place. But mostly, without birds specifically on my mind, I started looking up. And I found something wonderful.

A number of months past, I heard that familiar call, a tiny voice singing the praises of the cheeseburger. This time, though, I looked up. The noise was from a little black-and-white fellow who was preaching to me from on high. So I went a step further from looking up: I pulled out a bird guide and I looked it up. The chorus of my childhood, I found, was composed by mountain chickadees. They aren’t just a pretty voice: Mountain chickadees, despite their professed love of cheeseburgers, store seeds for the winter in thousands of hiding spots, all of which they remember. I smile every time I hear that song; now I can put a face to it, and a story to the face.



Birds have always filled me with wonder. Who didn’t read “My Side of the Mountain” and become infatuated with peregrine falcons? But I’d never seen one until a few months ago, when I looked up to find a pair tussling in the sky above Avon. I watched for half an hour. One went into a full dive, and I got to see the fastest animal alive shooting through the sky.

This column was going to be “Confessions of a reformed birder.” But that wouldn’t have been right, since I’m no birder. I don’t keep any lists. I just happen to have looked in a new place — up — and found something which enthralled and fascinated me, something which made me want to learn more.

Discover Something New

This winter, I encourage you to do the same: Look in a new place and find something new, something that fills you with a sense of wonder. You may see wintering raptors soaring high overhead, ferruginous and rough-legged hawks with wings stretched wide ­— like so many, they find that Colorado is the ideal place to spend the snowy months. You may see something new, or something familiar in a new light or something you wouldn’t have been able to see back in June.

But most of all, I hope that when you look you find awe, joy and that thing (whatever it may be) which makes you curious.

Alex Hamilton is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. Originally from the Lake Tahoe area in California, he is passionate about the mountains, skiing and (most recently) birds.


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