"Who's This on My Peak?"
Our most popular wildlife image.
Mountain goats on the Colorado Front Range have become rather use to seeing people on their high mountain abodes and demonstrate little fear of man as a result. In fact, many of these goats have learned that humans = salty treats. Only the salt they seem to prefer often comes from human urine.
These goats were photographed atop Whale Peak located near the South Park area. We had no sooner arrived at the summit on a fall day, when this group of goats came strolling up and walked right up to within 8 or 10 feet of us, apparently just checking us out. The goat in the lead seemed to look at us as though to inquire, "Who's this on my peak?" No need for zoom lens now. We just whipped out the camera and spent the next 15 minutes taking photos as the goats checked us out and a couple of babies born that spring played on the summit cairn, jumping off and then climbing back up again, practicing their rock climbing skills we guessed.
Some of the runs of the Breckenridge Ski area can be seen in the distance. Photo taken mid-September, 2007.
New for 2018 - a stunning new wildlife view.
A 2018 backpacking trip to revisit the Sunlight Basin above Vallecito Creek in the heart of the Weminuche Wilderness afforded many expected photographic opportunities, but this one took us completely by surprise.
A day and a half of backpacking brought us into the upper Sunlight Basin. On the next day, we spent the entire time photographing around the Sunlight Lakes and Jagged Mountain – a peak we had climbed nearly twenty-five years ago along with many other summits here we have ascended over the years. The following day we struck out again with a different agenda. Hiking into the upper basin we charted a route up Peak Ten, a summit dwarfed by the higher and more impressive Jagged Mtn.
The peak proved to be a challenge that got us into some exposed third and fourth-class scrambling and wishing at times we had brought a rope for some protection. Finally reaching the airy summit, we spent some time absorbing the immense mountain view, then started back down. Only perhaps one hundred feet away from the summit, we paused to study our descent route when suddenly, from below, this large, lone mountain goat appeared. Showing no fear of us, the goat easily climbed up toward us, then spent several minutes circumnavigating around us, inspecting us from every angle. We only had one camera with us at the time and took multiple shots, but this one really stood out. As we headed down, the goat followed closely behind for a while, leaving us feeling that it just wanted to be sure we knew how to get safely off his/her mountain. We felt as though this unexpected guest had been sent to be our “mountain guide.”
Moose On the Loose
A summer of 2018 visit to the Crags Campground near Cameron Pass in northern Colorado brought an interesting surprise. We had not been in the campground long before some other campers informed us that a cow moose and her young calf were visiting various campsites on a regular basis. We had more than one opportunity to watch and photograph this protective mother, in part because she had no reluctance whatsoever to graze for food in the various campsites. On one morning, we were up early to prepare for a climb that day and she wandered into our camp area and began grazing on some sweet raspberries that had grown up near a fire ring and our picnic table. We had an open type canopy set up over our table. The moose, with little hesitation decided to poke her head up under our canopy and see what was being served for breakfast. Fortunately, she was at the other end of the table from where we stood. As she eyed our food and gave clear indication she might take some, we gently attempted to dissuade her and encourage her to move away. The plan worked, but our camera was in our vehicle so we could not get any shots. Fortunately, the next day, she returned to the area and this time we had the camera ready. This photo was taken right in our campsite. A little perturbed by our moving around to photograph her, she expressed her displeasure and gave us a warning look not to get too close. After this shot, taken from just a few feet away, we cautiously backed off.
The American Pika (Ochotona princeps) is a small, rodent-type mammal that is most closely related to rabbits and hares. They generally reside in boulder and talus fields at higher elevations, at or above tree-line. As we hike in these areas, we often hear their high-pitched “eeek” warning others of our approach. The herbivorous animals only weigh about 6 ounces on average and feed on grasses, sedges, thistles and fireweed. They do not hibernate so their winter energy needs lead them to store various foods for the winter among their rocky abodes. They typically do not dig burrows, but instead live as much as a meter below the talus. They are quite territorial. Females typically bear two litters per year with gestation lasting about 30 days. The average litter size is three. Highly sensitive to higher temperatures, they can die in six hours when exposed to 78° heat. This severely limits their habitat. Males are referred to as “bucks” and females as “does.”
Obtaining a suitable photo of these creatures is not that easy. They seldom stay in one place for more than a few seconds before scurrying off. When hiking, if we are stopped and resting, they may come closer to investigate us, darting from one hiding place to another and peeking around the rocks to study us. This photo was taken late June, 2018.
Sunbathing With My Gal
The ‘Collared lizard,” (Crotaphytus collaris) are frequently seen residents often found at the base of the Colorado National Monument. They feed on insects like crickets and grasshoppers, other lizards, and smaller rodents and prefer our desert temperatures. Their favored living and resting areas are around rock piles. They live an average of 5 – 8 years. The males are more brightly colored.
Females develop bright red splotches on their body when they are carrying eggs which then disappear once the eggs are laid. They may lay from 1 to 13 eggs in the early summer. Once the eggs hatch, the parents do not nurture or protect the young hatchlings.
We found this male-female pair one day while hiking in the Monument. They were warming themselves in the sun on a cooler early summer morning. They made such a cute couple, we had to stop and photograph them. They reminded us of two kids heading for a day at the sunny beach, hence the title.
Photo taken June, 2017
Ptarmigan are an interesting bird to observe in the high mountain tundra - if you can ever spot them. Their summer feathers of mottled grays, browns and white blend in perfectly with their rocky environment. They spend most of their time on the ground, and usually only fly short distances. They make sounds that resemble a chicken. We've never tried eating one but do you think they would "taste like chicken?" Of course, if you pulled off all those feathers and fluffy down, you probably wouldn't have much bird left for a meal anyhow. And we're not suggesting you try!
If there are any young chicks around, the behavior of the adults resembles that of quail. They will keep leading you away from the young on a ground chase. Though they may allow you to get fairly close, they know just the right amount of distance to keep and if you get too close, off they fly in a flutter.
This one was photographed on Notch Mountain, late July, 2008.
"Monarchs of the Monument"
In the Colorado National Monument, just outside of Grand Junction, Colorado, there is a permanent herd of desert bighorn sheep. Like the Front Range mountain goats, they have become rather accustomed to human visitors to their domain and are generally unthreatened by tourists. While hiking in a more remote section of the Monument one day, we came across a small group that was feeding and followed them for some time, generally remaining about 20 yards away - a distance they seemed to tolerate. This provided a great opportunity for photos. At one point, these two males seemingly posed for us giving us a full view of their horns. Perhaps they thought, "Hey, maybe if we give them one good pic, they'll leave us alone." Their imposing stance demonstrated their dominance in this desert landscape, hence the photo name, "Monarchs of the Monument."
When you first see one of these collared lizards, you may mistake it for a colorful child's toy. When approached, they tend to remain motionless, but their bright colors stand out in the surrounding desert landscape betraying their presence. If you get too close, they my flee, running only on their hinds legs that move so rapidly, they appear as spinning wheels as the creature races away. While hiking along the base of the Colorado National Monument, we often see these brightly colored males sunning themselves. The black bands around their neck appear as a collar, hence the common name.
These lizards may grow 10 - 16 inches. Their strong jaws allow them to feed mostly on other varieties of lizards, insects and small rodents. They are known to have a voracious appetite. Their preferred daytime temperature range is the mid 80's to low 90's making them perfectly suited to our desert environment. We happened upon this nicely colored male one day who obligingly struck a nice pose for us upon this rock.
"You've Got My Goat!"
Yet another mountain goat found on Whale Peak, a 13,000 foot summit located along the Colorado Front Range. This particular one seemed to understand that we wanted it to "strike a pose" for us, so it obliged. The dark clouds in the background heightened the illuminated, somewhat dirty white hair. The goats will spend much of the summer season shedding a thicker coat of winter hair, which often leaves them looking rather scraggly as the matted clumps of hair drop off. We found these goats in mid-September when they had just about lost all of the previous winters fur. The bright sun, finding an opening in the clouds shone upon this goat giving it a nice radiance. It' s head cocked a little seemed to convey a sense of curiosity as to why these humans would be in its domain. With those dark clouds gathering in the distance, we would not stay long anyhow.
Photo taken Sept. 2007
Here's Looking' At You, Kid
The mountain goats found throughout Colorado’s Front Range areas have been exposed to humans repeatedly and have lost some of their fear or shyness as a result. They’ve also come to learn that humans mean salty snacks so they will often approach people, keeping a safe distance, hoping for some delicacy to fall their way.
On a late September day in 2007, we had climbed to the summit of Whale Peak, a 13er not too many miles from Kenosha Pass. While sitting on the summit, a group of mountain goats came up to investigate who it was invading their mountainous territory. Among that group of goats were two that had been born that spring. The two little goats played while we watched, by repeatedly climbing up and then leaping off the rocks piled up for a summit cairn, paying little attention to us. But eventually, curiosity got the best of these two little goats and one of them maneuvered over to an embedded rock where she could partially hide herself and gaze out over the rock at us and watch intently.
With an opportunity like this so close at hand, it was no problem at all to grab the camera and capture this image. The ski area in the background is Breckenridge.
One of the advantages that comes with climbing the more remote Colorado summits is the opportunity to see more wildlife. The mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) is endemic to the northern Rocky Mountain west but had to be reintroduced to Colorado. From 1948 to 1972, six transplant operations released an original group of 55 – 60 goats. By 2005, their population had grown to over 2,000. Today, their range can be found throughout the state. Because of frequent backcountry visitation on the Front range by hikers, climbers, etc., the goats in that area are generally accepting of human presence, but in more remote mountain areas like the San Juans, goats remain elusive and avoid human contact.
The group of goats seen here were part of a herd that numbered over twenty. We found them in the vicinity of the Highland Mary Lakes southeast of Silverton. We had expected them to flee from our presence since this was a fairly remote location and we figured they would not be tolerant of us, so we were quite surprised and felt rather privileged that we were allowed to follow them for nearly an hour, taking numerous photos and at times getting as close as twenty yards. The male goats are called a “billy.” The females are “nannies,” and the young are called “kids.” There are mostly nannies in this photo with one first-year kid. The goat farthest right may be a billy. The mountains in the background are part of the Grenadier Range.
Photo taken late July, 2015.
One of the advantages that comes with getting off the 14ers (14,000 foot peaks) and spending our time on 13ers and 12ers is the opportunity to see more wildlife. The elk of the Colorado high country are both magnificent, inspiring and interesting creatures and over our years of climbing the less visited Colorado summits, we have enjoyed numerous occasions to view them and learn their habits. We have come to recognize their “bird-like” calls. From ridges high above them, we’ve watched them graze in the early morning, cool themselves in alpine lakes and have even watched a stampeding herd more than once. We’ve also learned that their trails are often reliable paths to follow through forested terrain. We’ve visited locations where their herds numbered in the hundreds. But perhaps the most remarkable sight has been to find a newborn calf. This is not something you can ever plan. Elk are reclusive creatures and we seldom ever manage to come closer than a quarter mile to any. That makes this sight all the more remarkable. This young elk calf was probably not more than a day old. We stumbled upon it purely by accident and only took time for one quick photo before we decided it would be best to put some distance between us and this calf so it’s mother would not abandon it.
Photo taken near the summit of Haydn Peak, Ridgway, CO June 2012.
Fat, Lazy Marmot
The marmot is most closely related to a squirrel. Found not only in the Americas, but also in Europe and Asia, it belongs to the genus Marmota with 15 identifiable species. The groundhogs or woodchucks found in the eastern US are part of this genus. In the western US, there is a subgenus called “Petromarmota” that includes the Hoary marmot, Olympic, Vancouver Island and yellow-bellied marmot. What is typically seen in Colorado is the yellow-bellied variety. They live either in complicated, maze-like burrows under alpine meadows or under rock piles. Hibernating for over half the year, during the warm season, they feed on grasses, berries, lichens, mosses, roots, flowers, insects and even bird eggs. Being very social animals, they use loud whistle-like calls to communicate and warn. This has led to another name for them – the “whistlepig.”
Marmots are opportunists as well. In areas that humans frequent, we have found marmots quickly learn that these two-legged creatures bring delectable and irresistable treats. Marmots have chewed their way into our tent, made use of our sleeping bags and shredded anything left in our campsite within their reach that was salty. The marmot pictured here was found at a trail intersection along Squaw Creek in the Weminuche Wilderness. This opportunistic critter had learned to make a more dishonest living by soliciting treats from frequent human visitors, hence it’s rather plump size and lack of any fear. We did not accommodate its begging.