Friday 27 September 2019

Wildlife in the Colorado Rockies

Encountering wildlife is always one of the joys of any walk. This summer's walk in the Colorado Rockies was exceptional for the amount of wildlife, large and small. Few days went by without my seeing many birds and animals plus signs of more. As well as being a pleasure in itself the variety and quantity of wildlife suggested a healthy and flourishing environment. I contrasted this with the Scottish Highlands, where, sadly, I generally see far fewer numbers of fewer species.

The land was often alive with crickets chirping. There were many other insects too, including a wealth of butterflies, especially these orange ones, which I saw every day. They're fritillaries but I'm not sure which species.

Another common creature was the beaver, though I only caught one glimpse of an actual animal. I did see many beaver dams, often in series and filling a whole valley.

In the forests I saw squirrels, chipmunks and gray jays regularly and they often seemed quite unafraid. Taking photos of these lively, constantly moving creatures wasn't easy though. Walking and staying in one place waiting patiently don't go together.

Above the trees marmots and pikas (a small animal related to rabbits) proved equally difficult to photograph, both whistling loudly at my approach and diving for cover into the rocks where they live, the pikas often with mouths full of vegetation for lining the dens where they'll spend the winter. I did get this one picture of a pika that hadn't noticed me passing by.

In the forest there were many small birds, most of which I didn't identify, and high above there were eagles and hawks. On the tundra ptarmigan reminded me of home in the Cairngorms.

Of the larger mammals I saw many signs of black bears, including fresh droppings on the trail, and I'm sure some bears must have seen me. They kept out of sight though.

I only caught glimpses of elk too and only once had a good view of mule deer, from near the camp I had with Andrew Terrill.

I did though have a splendid view of two bull moose and was able to watch them for quite a while. This came about due to a thunderstorm! I was on the edge of a big meadow and wondering whether to venture out into the open when there was a flash of lightning right in front of me followed almost instantly by a tremendous crack of thunder. I was staying in the trees. Indeed, I felt I'd be safer deeper in the forest. Below the trail I could see a dense clump of small subalpine fir that looked a secure shelter. I descended steep slopes and crawled in between the trees. A movement caught my eye and there, not far away, was a moose looking in my direction. I stayed quiet and still and the animal soon went back to browsing the grass. I'd found a natural hide. Soon afterwards a second bull joined it and for half an hour I forgot the thunderstorm and just watched these magnificent animals. Then their heads went up and they were running off into the trees. A hiker passed along the trail above. The storm over I followed.

Also fortuitous was my only sighting of a porcupine. I'd crossed a creek, heading for a spur that looked like it might provide a good camp site. Realising the spot was a bit further away than I'd at first thought I decided I'd better pick up some water now rather than come back for it. I dropped my pack and wandered back to the creek. There on the trail was a porcupine. It looked at me, turned away, spines bristling, and ambled off along the trail.

The final big mammals I saw were some female rocky mountain sheep. Crossing a steep rocky slope I first noticed movement above me and looked up to see a flock high above. I watched them for a while then continued along the trail as it ran over a slight rise. As I reached the top of this another half dozen sheep scattered right in front of me before regrouping and heading up to join the others.

Photographic Note:

I'm not a wildlife photographer. I have few wildlife photos from other walks because I generally didn't have a telephoto lens on my camera or even with me. I never approach a creature to get a photo in case I disturb it so usually animals are too far away for a worthwhile picture. On some walks I have carried a telephoto zoom lens but as this isn't usually on the camera I never used it much. Last year on the GR5 Through the Alps I didn't take it. I saw much wildlife and was frustrated I couldn't get many pictures. That's one reason that earlier this year I bought (second-hand) a Sony E 18-135mm zoom to use as my standard lens. Reviews suggested this was at least as good as the 16-50mm lens that's been my most-used for many years (some suggested the 18-135 was actually much better). With a reach of just over 200mm (35mm/full frame equivalent) this wide angle to telephoto zoom looked ideal for long walks and so it proved, for landscape shots as well as wildlife. I wouldn't have got most of the pictures above without it.


  1. Superb! I particularly like the porcupine.

    Looks like the 18-135 has been more than worthwhile. I got on very well with the 16-50 in the Pyrenees, but I'm also considering the 18-135 for a future investment (maybe next year).

    1. Thanks Alex. I am pleased with the 18-135. Quite a bit heavier and bulkier than the 16-50 (which I have no complaints about) but lighter than the 16-50/55-210 combination - and it got used.

  2. I bit the bullet and went for the same 18-135 lens Chris. It did mean I had to upgrade my tripod though, as my Velbon lightweight tripod wasn't sufficient for the extra weight over my usual 18-50 lens. There were a few hairy moments with the 18-135 on the Velbon that required Usainian Bolt efforts to reach it before it toppled over! I've now got a Mefoto Backpacker Air tripod 900g which is compact and far more stable. Not the lightest though. Will you be writing a book about your Colorado walk Chris?

    1. I've been using the 18-135 with the Velbon V-Pod without problems. I never extend the central column though and only extend the legs fully when essential.

      I'll be contacting my publisher soon about the next book. I don't think the Colorado walk will be a book on its own. I'm thinking of a book about rewilding and conservation based around my Yosemite to Death Valley, GR5 Through the Alps, and Colorado Rockies walks. I found the differences in approach interesting and the results.

  3. That sounds great Chris. Rewilding is certainly a pertinent issue, although I have to be careful about how I approach the subject without putting people's backs up. I've met a fair degree of hostility towards our UK landscapes and rewilding when I express my thoughts, or those of Monbiot etc. I seem to be cast as a left wing extremist Guardian reading toff, when the reality is that I'd just like to see and hear more birds, mammals and forests. I'm still not sure weather to put my head above the parapet and take the flack, or keep the peace. I'm veering towards the former!

    Unfortunately I don't have the V-Pod, which seems ideal (discontinued now), it was the other inexpensive Velbon £19? tripod. I sometimes wonder whether its worth carrying my Sony a6000, 18-135 and a MeFoto tripod. Maybe just use a smartphone? I dont know - decisions decisions! Looking forward to any future book you write Chris.

  4. Rewilding is certainly a contentious issue! I get hostility on that and other issues quite often. I accept that as I think what's most important is to express my thoughts regardless. How it's done matters though and I do try not to be anatagonistic - which sometimes gets me attacked as too soft or uncommitted!

    Sadly the V-Pod has been discontinued. I wish I'd bought a second one. I guess which camera you use depends on what you want to do with the end result. For social media smartphone pics are fine. For big prints and publication they still don't approach cameras with large sensors. But they are improving rapidly.