ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK: Birding Adventure on Cub Lake Trail
March 11, 2017
Before we begin our journey to Cub Lake let’s talk about some of the essentials when beginning a bird-hike adventure.
- Do some background research on your desired hike such as distance to location, weather conditions and trail information.
I wanted to focus on a 3-4 hour beginner hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. My husband and step-son would be joining me on the journey and I wanted to consider our beginner level experience. I originally planned on a loop trail that began at Beak Lake Trail head but after checking the weather and trail conditions it was more snow packed then I would recommend for beginner hikers without proper equipment like snowshoes. Cub Lake Trail was suggested by the Park Ranger as a trail that was less impacted by the snow that had accumulated a few days prior.
The beginner hike highlights some of the natural beauty offered by the Rocky Mountains like lakes, timberline and wildlife. Cub Lake trail loop is a great beginner hike and birding experience because of the water features and easy accessibility. I wanted to maximize the birding opportunities by including the chance of spotting water fowl. The hike in its entirety is approximately 5 miles.
- Start the hike earlier in the morning to avoid other hikers as well as increase the chances of seeing wildlife.
It is essential to be a prepared hiker. Weather can change drastically when hiking in the Rocky Mountains so it is important to be ready for all of the elements of nature. Dressing appropriately and having the right tools could make a giant difference in serious injury or death.
What to pack:
- First Aid Supplies
- Sunscreen and Sunglasses
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Navigation: Map, Compass, GPS Unit
- Emergency Shelter
- Down Coat
- Trekking Poles
- Insect Repellent
- Cell Phone
- Chap Stick
- Hiking Boots or a supportive shoe
- Lightweight Rain Jacket
- Hat and Gloves
- Ibuprofen Socks Toilet Paper in a Ziplock Bag
- Extra Ziplock or small trash bag
- Dog Bowl
- Bird ID book (optional)
Go to Foods:
- Peanuts and Almonds – Nuts are a great source of protein and metabolize slower than sugars.
- Hard-Boiled Eggs – This is a more substantial protein source. I will put these in a plastic storage container to keep from crushing them.
- Blueberries – Are low in glycemic sugars and high in Antioxidants. Other fresh fruits like bananas are great choices, too.
- Protein bars – I look for bars that have a balance of protein and natural sugars.
- Corn tortilla chips
- Chocolate – because its chocolate… I recommend high cocoa content bars.
- Trail Mix – A good alternative is simply to mix up some nuts and raisins if you want to avoid the sugars in most common trail mixes.
Other hiking tips:
- Set Your Pace off the Slowest Member – Setting your pace off the slowest member in the group will make your experience more enjoyable and avoids having stragglers.
- Love Your Feet – Find socks that are comfortable and keep you feet dry (in my opinion, socks are more important than boots). Also clip your toenails, and massage in some lotion.
Don’t Separate from Your Party*If You Get Lost – Stay put. The best thing you can do when lost is to sit still and calm down. This will help you observe where you are and where you may have come from. It will also prevent panic, which is what gets most people into trouble. A whistle isthe best tool for signaling for help. Break out your map and compass and use them.
Be advised if you are newer to RMNP be sure ask specific instructions to your trail head destination… On our route to Cub Lake Trail head we got a little turned around but did eventually find our destination.
Cub Lake Trail instantly offered breath-taking scenery and transported you to a mystical winter wonderland in the transition to the quickly approaching spring.
It didn’t take long to spot our first feathered companion, the Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides).
Mountain Bluebird will be about 7 1/2″ in length and breeds in a variety of habitats ranging from subalpine meadows to high-elevation grasslands and aspen parkland, as well as the pinyon-juniper woodlands and sagebrush of the Great Basin. Their call is a low throaty ‘chew’ in sets of 5 to 7, while their song is a soft warbled ‘cher-oo’.
Next we came around a bend in the trail and happened upon a few Mallard Ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) floating on small ponds attempting to shield themselves from the gusts of wind whipping down in the valley.
Mallard Ducks are 20-26 inches in length and are very common throughout the United States and most of North America. Their winter habitats vary from marshes and lakes to city ponds, chiefly in the lower 48 states. The Mallard sound is the iconic ‘quack’, most often from the females. Female Mallards are known to display a raspy descending series of laughing quacks.
We continued along the trail, squishing our way through mud in the lower elevations and climbing over snow in the higher elevations. Remember to take breaks along your adventure. Water and snacks help rejuvenate the energy needed to make the whole trip. We like to hug trees when we rest!
During our rest we were able to catch a glimpse of a Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
We also spotted a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) but unfortunately the bird was too quick for me to snap a photo
Here is a borrowed picture of what the species looks like
Mountain Chickadees are around 5 1/4″ in length and have a narrow bib shaped dark plumage under the beak. Their preferred habitat is in coniferous forests. The song of the Mountain Chickadee is a plaintive ‘see-bee’ with additional ‘bee’ notes at the end.
Making the last few switch-backs that were covered with packed snow, we finally made it to our destination Cub Lake.
I stood in wonderment and silence watching the snow sparkle in the sunlight as it rested on top of the frozen lake. I reflected on the beauty offered to us by this National Park. I felt washed over with gratitude and amazement to be witness to the miracles of Mother Nature. We reluctantly made our way back to the trail head, where we had started our journey.
One last look before we loaded up into the car…
At the end of the bird and nature hike we were all thoroughly exhausted and ready for a good meal. We made a pit-stop at Oskar Blues in Lyons, Colorado and filled our bellies with delicious food.
A giant thank you to Rocky Mountain National Park and all the people that help preserve and maintain its natural beauty.
- National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America by Edward S. Brinkley, Foreword by Craig Tufts
Sterling; 1St Edition edition (May 3, 2007)
Over the last few months I have been running a poll to determine where people most enjoy hiking in areas outside of the Denver metro-area. The poll was voting on hiking destinations such as Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Colorado Springs, Golden as well as a write in option.
The results are in.
The destination that received the most votes for favorite place to hike was…
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK!
photo credit: Joe Gallagher
Tied for second was Estes Park and Boulder. With honorable mention going to Colorado Springs. A big thank you to those that took the time to participate.
The results are not all that surprising to me. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most outstanding and breathtaking places that Colorado has to offer. It is also one of my favorite places to hike, as you may have noticed from my earlier blog featuring RMNP’s Cub Lake. Estes Park and Boulder are in the same general area as RMNP so they also offer some great hiking opportunities. And if you’ve ever taken the trails scattered throughout Colorado Springs you know about those stunning views. But to be honest, anywhere you hike in Colorado is going to provide quality and picture worthy nature time. Let’s take a moment to bask in its beauty.
I would like to mention that I fell slightly short of the desired number of participants for the poll. I believe lack in participation came down to a couple factors. One, I didn’t frequently enough advertise my blog and the poll. I was a bit intimidated in the beginning of this blogging experience and should have been more active in generating foot traffic to my website. Two, when I did encourage viewers, I used mobile communication as my way to connect people to the blog. When I’ve used the mobile version of this blog it doesn’t allow you to see the poll. This may have decreased the number of participants.
to For those of you who enjoy the comforts of your home but want to experience the thrills of birding, have no fear, I’ve got a solution for you! Bring the feathered friends to your own backyard by following these helpful hints.
1. Treat them with food.
photo credit: Who is looking at whom by Micolo J
Different species of birds eat different things, so it helps to offer a variety of food types. Native plants that bear seeds, berries and insects are the best and most natural way to offer food for wild birds. You can supplement that with feeders. There are many different types of feeding stations to consider such as a platform feeder for ground feeding birds, hanging feeders for perching birds and suet feeders for insect eating birds.
- New Seeds: Black oil sunflower seeds are the best for attracting songbirds to your yard, but other types of seed such as safflower, millet and nyjer will attract different species that aren’t as fond of sunflower seeds. Try adding new seeds to existing mixes or use new seeds alone to see which birds show a preference.
- Suet: If you don’t already offer suet in your backyard, you’re missing out on attracting woodpeckers, nuthatches and other fat-loving birds. Try different blends or make your own bird suet recipe for the birds you wish to attract.
- Nuts: Jays, magpies and titmice love peanuts and peanut butter. Offer whole nuts or shelled nuts as part of your backyard buffet to attract these species, or be sure your seed and suet types also include bits of nuts.
- Fruit: Many birds will sample fruit at your feeders, and different types of fruit are favorite choices for feeding orioles. Fruit chunks such as oranges, apples, melons and grapes are easy to add to platform feeders and will attract many unusual birds.
- Nectar: If you’ve never tried feeding hummingbirds, putting up a hummingbird feeder can bring a colorful surprise to your yard. Orioles, woodpeckers and other species will also sample from nectar feeders, depending on the size and design.
- Natural Foods: Don’t forget to take advantage of nature’s bounty, and add seed-bearing flowers, berry bushes, nectar-rich flowers and other natural foods to your landscaping. Many birds that may be wary about unknown feeders will happily forage among familiar plants. At the same time, minimize or eliminate insecticide use to be sure insectivorous birds have plenty to eat.
2. Add some splish and splash!
photo credit: “splish splash … taking a bath” by roger smith
Birds certainly need water, but they may not always know you have made it available. This is especially true of spring and fall migrants who are just passing through. The best way to “advertise” is to let them hear the water.
- Moving Water: Instead of just a static bird bath, add a dripper, mister or bubbler to create motion. Birds will see and hear the water from great distances, and many curious species will come to investigate.
- Multiple Water Sources: A single bird bath can be very crowded, particularly if it is the only water source for a large area. Add additional bird baths to attract more birds, or add different water features such as a mister in a shady grove or a ground bubbler near shrubbery to attract a wider range of birds.
- Winter Water: Birds can get their water from snow and ice in the winter, but a liquid water source will attract dozens of birds in the cold. Add a simple heater attachment to your existing bird bath or upgrade to a heated bird bath to attract winter birds with a warm drink.
3. Create a cozy home and sanctuary.
photo credit: Tree Swallow by Keith Reed
It is a real treat for backyard birders to observe mating and nesting habits of their favorite backyard species. Offering suitable nesting areas will increase the chances that new birds will find your yard attractive.
- Landscaping: Opt for bird-friendly landscaping that features native plants in tiers or clumps to provide familiar shelter for your regional birds. Add new plants to an unused area of your yard, or increase the density of existing plants for more secure cover. To make the plants do double duty, choose trees and shrubs with seeds and fruits the birds will enjoy as a natural food source.
- Brush Pile: Build a brush pile in a secluded section of your yard to offer instant shelter to birds. Small birds such as sparrows and finches will eagerly flock to a brush pile when they feel threatened.
- Roost Boxes: Adding a roost box to your yard will give backyard birds a safe, warm place to settle on cold winter evenings. Many small birds, including bluebirds, chickadees and wrens will readily use roost boxes.
- Bird Houses: Add a new bird house designed for a specific species to your yard. Check the size of the entrance hole and the other dimensions of the house to be sure it is suitable for the birds you wish to attract.
- Nesting Material: Offer nesting material for your birds to take when constructing their nests. Some birds will prefer weed fluff from dead flowers, while others will take advantage of grass clippings that are left on the lawn. You can purchase balls or squares of cotton fluff and lint that hummingbirds and goldfinches prefer, or you can save hair, pet fur and small pieces of string to offer in a suet cage nester.
Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge offers another great opportunity to enjoy a birding adventure in the Denver metro-area. Rocky Mountain Arsenal is a 15,988-acre National Wildlife Refuge located near Commerce City, Colorado. The complex offers visitors a chance to reconnect with nature and experience the all different wildlife species that take refuge here. For more information please visit their website.
Late this winter I made time to visit the refuge and take advantage of the many walking trails that are available. Lake Ladora was beautiful with the thinning frozen water and clear skies above.
During the walk I captured some of the birds I saw along the way. The highlight of the trip was spotting a Great Blue Heron, which was very unusual for the time of year. Please take a moment to follow the link below to enjoy the slideshow of pictures.
click here: Birding at Lake Ladora
As some of you begin to get more comfortable with your birding skills you might be interested in venturing outside of the neighborhood to spot more of our feathered friends. I have summarized 10 birding destinations throughout the Colorado area that are prime for bird watching. The information collected has been provided by the Audubon Society. For more information please visit their website www.audubon.org
- ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK– This is one of the more popular national parks in the country and the scenery speaks for itself. RMNP is an ideal place for birding because it offers an array of habitats that attract many different bird species. The higher elevations of the park offer the chance to spot birds like the American Three-toed Woodpecker or a Pine Grosbeak. More birding opportunities can be had in the lower elevations as well. Here you should keep an eye out for the Pygmy Nuthatch, American Dipper, Mountain Bluebird and Western Taanger. In a previous post I highlighted a winter season bird outing of my own around Cub Lake.
- COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT– Moving towards the west, Colorado National Monument, near Grand Junction, is a great location to identify bird species that don’t frequent the central and eastern areas of the box state. The climate in this region tends to be a little more arid so to increase your bird spotting chances visit locations that offer water and more vegetation. On the western slope you could find species such as the Golden Eagle, Broad-tailed Hummingbird or Ash-throated Flycatcher.
- BARR LAKE STATE PARK– Barr Lake, situated Northeast of Denver, provides a wide range of bird species that frequent the area. Distinct features such as the lake, cottonwood and juniper trees along with the prairie grasslands attracted both resident and migratory birds. Near the lake will increase the chances of seeing the American White Pelican or herons and egrets. Further out in the grasslands take notice of a Burrowing Owl or an Orchard Oriole.
- CHERRY CREEK STATE PARK– Not looking to travel far from the city? No problem! In the suburbs of Denver sits Cherry Creek State Park. This park is a fantastic location for birding and you don’t even have to venture into the wilderness to see a large variety of birds. Over 300 species have been recorded in the park. The four seasons boast different species but Bald Eagles can be spotted throughout the year. Ospreys will arrive in the spring and fall whereas the winter season occasionally brings in the Northern Shrike.
- MONTE VISTA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE– Nestled down in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, this refuge offers a unique opportunity. During the spring and fall migration, Sandhill Cranes will flock to the area. This particular bird is so popular and celebrated in the community that in March the city and refuge host a festival in its honor.
- CHICO BASIN RANCH– Chico Basin Ranch is located approximately 25 miles southeast of Colorado Springs. The ranch is privately operated so beware that an entrance fee does apply. In lieu of the fee many birders flock to the area because roughly 330 species have been recorded here. Chico Basin Ranch has also developed birding trails for visitors to maximize sighting opportunities. If you are planning a trip to the area look out for rare passerines. You could potentially spot a variety of eastern warblers such as Worm-eating, Golden-winged, Mourning, and Cape May.
- JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR STATE PARK– This park is situated on the Arkansas River west of Lamar. The reservoir along with small ponds throughout the park invite a variety of ducks and other waterbrids. Landbirds in the park include Scaled Quail, Ring-necked Pheasant, and the Greater Roadrunner. The best birding times are from the fall through the spring, in order to avoid the summer crowds.
- PAWNEE NATIONAL GRASSLAND– If prairie birds are what you are searching for, go no further. The Pawnee National Grassland is an exceptional location to hone in on these species. In this northeastern area you might see birds like the Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Say’s Phoebe, McCown’s Longspur, Lark Bunting, Vesper Sparrow, and Bullock’s Oriole. It should be noted that not all areas are open to the public, some lands are privately owned ranches and farmland.
- FOUNTAIN CREEK REGIONAL PARK– The city of Fountain, just south of Colorado Springs, hosts the regional park that attracts many migrant songbirds in the fall and spring seasons. A great place to start your birding adventure is at the nature center, from there begins the trailheads that take you through woodlands, ponds and creeks. During the summer you are likely to find the Black-chinned Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Western Wood-Pewee, House Wren, and Lesser Goldfinch.
- COTTONWOOD CANYON– This distant area around the southeastern corner of Colorado holds interest for birders for a couple of reasons. One, the location provides species at the very edge of the range and two, this out-there location promotes regionally unusual or rare species. The beautiful and rugged terrain is painted in pinon pines, junipers, scrub oaks and cottonwood trees. Birders in the area often spot Wild Turkey, Mississippi Kite, Western Screech-Owl, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Cassin’s Kingbird, and on occasion the Painted Bunting.