Birds Of Bald Peaks And Green Vales

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )

Mr. Keyser is a Lutheran clergyman in Ohio who has given much close study to Bird Life and has published some valuable contributions to our knowledge of that subject as well as some capital books of Bird Stories.

ONE of my chief objects in visiting the Rockies was to ascend Pike's Peak from Manitou, and make observations on the birds from the base to the summit. A walk one afternoon up to the Halfway House and back—the Halfway House is only about one-third of the way to the top—convinced me that to climb the entire distance on foot would be a useless expenditure of time and effort. An idea struck me : Why not ride up on the cog-wheel train, and then walk down, going around by some of the valleys and taking all the time needed for observations on the avifaunal tenantry? That was the plan pursued, and an excellent one it proved.

When the puffing cog-wheel train landed me on the summit, I was fresh and vigorous, and therefore in excellent condition physically and mentally to enjoy the scenery and also to ride my hobby at will over the realm of cloudland. The summit is a bald area of several acres, strewn with immense fragments of granite, with not a spear of grass visible. One of the signal-station men asked a friend who had just come up from the plain, " Is there anything green down below I'd give almost any-thing to see a green patch of some kind." There was a yearning strain in his tones that really struck me as pathetic. Here were visitors revelling in the magnificence of the panorama, their pulses tingling and their feelings in many cases too exalted for expression; but those whose business or duty it was to remain on the summit day after day soon found life growing monotonous, and longed to set their eyes on some patch of verdure. To the visitors, however, who were in hale physical condition, the panorama of snow-clad ranges and isolated peaks was almost overwhelming. In the gorges and sheltered depressions of the old mountain's sides large fields of snow still gleamed in the sun and imparted to the air a frosty crispness.

When the crowd of tourists, after posing for their photographs, had departed on the descending car, I walked out over the summit to see what birds, if any, had selected an altitude of fourteen thousand one hundred and forty-seven feet above sea-level for their summer home. Below me, to the east, stretched the gray plains running off to the sky-line, while the foothills and lower mountains, which had previously appeared so high and rugged and difficult of access, now seemed like ant-hills crouching at the foot of the giant on whose crown I stood. Off to the southwest, the west, and the northwest, the snowy ranges towered, iridescent in the sunlight. In contemplating this vast, overawing scene, I almost forgot my natural history, and wanted to feast my eyes for hours on its ever-changing beauty; but presently I was brought back to a consciousness of my special vocation by a sharp chirp. Was it a bird, or only one of those playful little chipmunks that abound in the Rockies? Directly there sounded out on the serene air another ringing chirp, this time overhead, and, to my delight and surprise, a little bird swung over the summit, then out over the edge of the cliff, and plunged down into the fearsome abyss of the " Bottomless Pit."

Other birds of the same species soon followed his ex-ample, making it evident that this was not a birdless region. Unable to identify the winged aeronauts, I clambered about over the rocks of the summit for a while, then slowly made my way down the southern declivity of the mountain for a short distance. Again my ear was greeted with that loud, ringing chirp, and now the bird uttering it obligingly alighted on a stone not too far away to be seen distinctly through my binocular. Who was the little waif that had chosen this sky-invading summit for its summer habitat? At first I mistook it for a horned lark, and felt so sure my decision was correct that I did not look at the bird as searchingly as I should have done, thereby learning a valuable lesson in thoroughness. The error was corrected by my friend, Mr. Charles E. Aiken, of Colorado Springs, who has been of not a little service in determining and classifying the avian fauna of Colorado. My new-found friend (the feathered one, I mean) was the American pipit, which some years ago was known as the tit-lark.

Te-cheer ! to-cheer ! to-cheer ! " (accent strong on the second syllable) the birds exclaimed in half-petulant remonstrance at my intrusion as I hobbled about over the rocks. Presently one of them darted up into the air; up, up, up, he swung in a series of oblique leaps and circles, this way and that, until he became a mere speck in the sky, and then disappeared from sight in the cerulean depths beyond. All the while I could hear his emphatic and rapidly repeated call, " Te-cheer ! to-cheer ! " sifting down out of the blue canopy. How long he remained aloft in " his watch-tower in the skies " I do not know, for one cannot well count minutes in such exciting circumstances, but it seemed a long time. By and by the call appeared to be coming nearer, and the little aeronaut swept down with a swiftness that made my blood tingle, and alighted on a rock as lightly as a snowflake. After-ward a number of other pipits performed the same aerial exploit. It was wonderful to see them rise several hundred feet into the rarified atmosphere over an abyss so deep that it has been named the " Bottomless Pit."

The pipits frequently flitted from rock to rock, teetering their slender bodies like sandpipers, and chirping their disapproval of my presence. They furnished some evidence of having begun the work of nest construction, although no nests were found, as it was doubtless still too early in the season. In some respects the pipits are extremely interesting, for, while many of them breed in remote northern latitudes, others select the loftiest summits of the Rockies for summer homes, where they rear their broods and scour the alpine heights in search of food. The following interesting facts relative to them in this alpine country are gleaned from Professor Cooke's pamphlet on " The Birds of Colorado ":

In migration they are common throughout the State, but breed only on the loftiest mountains. They arrive on the plains from the South about the last of April, tarry for nearly a month, then hie to the upper mountain parks, stopping there to spend the month of May. By the first of June they have ascended above timber-line to their summer home amid the treeless slopes and acclivities. Laying begins early in July, as soon as the first grass is started. Most of the nests are to be found at an elevation of twelve thousand to thirteen thousand feet, the lowest known being one on Mount Audubon, discovered on the third of July with fresh eggs. During the breeding season these birds never descend below timber-line. The young birds having left the nest, in August both old and young gather in flocks and range over the bald mountain peaks in quest of such dainties as are to the pipit taste. Some of them remain above timber-line until October although most of them have by that time gone down into the upper parks of the mountains. During this month they descend to the plains, and in November return to their winter residence in the South.

While watching the pipits, I had another surprise. On a small, grassy area amid the rocks, about a hundred feet below the summit, a white-crowned sparrow was hopping about on the ground, now leaping upon a large stone, now creeping into an open space under the rocks, all the while picking up some kind of seed or nut or insect. It was very confiding, coming close to me, but vouchsafing neither song nor chirp. Farther on I shall have more to say about these tuneful birds, but at this point it is interesting to observe that they breed abundantly among the mountains at a height of from eight thousand to eleven thousand feet, while the highest nest known to explorers was twelve thousand five hundred feet above the sea. One of Colorado's bird men has noted the curious fact that they change their location between the first and second broods — that is, in a certain park at an elevation of eight thousand feet they breed abundantly in June, and then most of them leave that region and become numerous among the stunted bushes above timber-line, where they raise a second brood. It only remains to be proved that the birds in both localities are the same individuals, which is probable.

On a shoulder of the mountain below me, a flock of ravens alighted on the ground, walked about awhile, uttered their coarse croaks, and then took their departure, apparently in sullen mood. I could not tell whether they croaked " Nevermore ! " or not.

Down the mountain side I clambered, occasionally picking a beautiful blossom from the many brilliant-hued clusters and inhaling its fragrance. Indeed, sometimes the breeze was laden with the aroma of these flowers, and in places the slope looked like a cultivated garden. The only birds seen that afternoon above timber-line were those already mentioned. What do the birds find to eat in these treeless and shrubless altitudes? There are many flies, some grasshoppers, humble-bees, beetles, and other insects, even in these arctic regions, dwelling among the rocks and in the short grass below them watered by the melting snows.

At about half-past four in the afternoon I reached the timber-line, indicated by a few small, scattering pines and many thick chimps of bushes. Suddenly a loud, melodious song brought me to a standstill. It came from the bushes at the side of the trail. Although I turned aside and sought diligently, I could not find the shy lyrist. Another song of the same kind soon reached me from a distance. Farther down the path a white-crowned spar-row appeared, courting his mate. With crown-feathers and head and tail erect, he would glide to the top of a stone, then down into the grass where his lady-love sat; up and down, up and down he scuttled again and again. My approach put an end to the picturesque little comedy. The lady scurried away into hiding, while the little prince with the snow-white diadem mounted to the top of a bush and whistled the very strain that had surprised me so a little while before, farther up the slope. Yes, I had stumbled into the summer home of the white-crowned sparrow, which on the Atlantic coast and the central portions of the American continent breeds far in the North.

It was not long before I was regaled with a white-crown vesper concert. From every part of the lonely valley the voices sounded. And what did they say? " Oh, de-e-e-ar, de-e-ar, Whittier, Whittier," sometimes adding, in low, caressing tones, " Dear Whittier "— one of the most melodious tributes to the Quaker poet I have ever heard. Here I also saw my first mounted bluebird, whose back and breast are wholly blue, there being no rufous at all in his plumage. He was feeding a youngster somewhere among the snags. A red-shafted flicker flew across the vale and called, " Zwick-ah ! zwick-ah ! " and then pealed out his loud call just like the eastern yellow-shafted high-holder. Why the Rocky Mountain region changes the lining of the flicker's wings from gold to crimson—who can tell? A robin—the western variety—sang his " Cheerily," a short distance up the hollow, right at the boundary of the timber-line.

About half-past five I found myself a few hundred feet below timber-line in the lone valley, which was already beginning to look shadowy and a little uncanny, the tall ridges that leaped up at the right obscuring the light of the declining sun. My purpose had been to find accommodations at a mountaineer's cabin far down the valley, in the neighborhood of the Seven Lakes ; but I had tarried too long on the mountain, absorbed in watching the birds, and the danger now was that, if I ventured farther down the hollow, I should lose my way and be compelled to spend the night alone in this deserted place. I am neither very brave nor very cowardly; but, in any case, such a prospect was not pleasing to contemplate. Be-sides, I was by no means sure of being able to secure lodgings at the mountaineer's shanty, even if I should be able to find it in the dark. There seemed to be only one thing to do —to climb back to the signal station on the summit.

I turned about and began the ascent. How much steeper the acclivities were than they had seemed to be when I came down! My limbs ached before I had gone many rods, and my breath came short. Upward I toiled, and by the time my trail reached the cog-road I was ready to drop from exhaustion. Yet I had not gone more than a third of the way to the top. I had had no supper, but was too weary even to crave food, my only desire being to find some place wherein. to rest. Night had now come, but fortunately the moon shone brightly from a sky that was almost clear, and I had no difficulty in following the road.

Wearily I began to climb up the steep cog-wheel track. Having trudged around one curve, I came to a portion of the road that stretched straight up before me for what seemed an almost interminable distance, and, oh ! the way looked so steep, almost as if it would tumble back upon my head. Could I ever drag myself up to the next bend in the track, By a prodigious effort I did this at last — it seemed " at last " to me, at all events—and, to ! there gleamed before me another long stretch of four steel rails.

My breath came shorter and shorter, until I was compelled to open my mouth widely and gasp the cold, rare fled air, which, it seemed, would not fill my chest with the needed oxygen. Sharp pains shot through my lungs, especially in the extremities far down in the chest; my head and eye-balls ached, and it seemed sometimes as if they would burst; my limbs trembled with weakness, and I tottered and reeled like a drunken man from side to side of the road, having to watch carefully lest I might topple over the edge and meet with a serious accident. Still that relentless track, with its quartette of steel rails, stretched steep before me in the distance.

For the last half mile or more I was compelled to fling myself down upon the track every few rods to rest and recover breath. Up, up, the road climbed, until at length I reached the point where it ceases to swing around the shoulders of the mountain, and ascends directly to the summit. Here was the steepest climb of all. By throwing my weary frame on the track at frequent intervals and resting for five minutes, taking deep draughts of air between my parched lips, I at last came in sight of the government building. It is neither a mansion nor a palace, not even a cottage, but never before was I so glad to get a glimpse of a building erected by human hands. It was past nine o'clock when I staggered up to the door and rang the night bell, having spent more than three hours and a half in climbing about two miles and a half. Too weary to sleep, I tossed for hours on my bed. At last, however, " nature's sweet restorer " came to my relief, and I slept the deep sleep of unconsciousness until seven o'clock the next morning, allowing the sun to rise upon the Peak without getting up to greet him. That omission may have been an unpardonable. sin, for one of the chief fads of visitors is to see the sun rise from the Peak; but I must sag in my defence that, in the first place, I failed to wake up in time to witness the Day King's advent, and, in a second place, being on bird lore intent rather than scenic wonders, my principal need was to recruit my strength for the tramping to be done during the day. The sequel proved that, for my special purpose, I had chosen the wiser course.

By eight o'clock I had written a letter home, eaten a refreshing breakfast, paying a dollar for it, and another for lodging, and was starting down the mountain, surprised at the exhilaration I felt, in view of my extreme exhaustion of the evening before. I naturally expected to feel stiff and sore in every joint, languid and woe-begone ; but such was not the case. It is wonderful how soon one recovers strength among these heights. How bracing is the cool mountain air, if you breathe it deeply ! As I began the descent, I whistled and sang,—that is, I tried to. To be frank, it was all noise and no music, but I must have some way of giving expression to the up-lifted emotions that filled my breast. Again and again I said to myself, " I'm so glad ! I'm so glad! I'm so glad ! " It was gladness pure and simple, — the dictionary has no other word to express it. No pen can do justice to the panorama of mountain and valley and plain as viewed from such a height on a clear, crisp morning of June. One felt like exclaiming with George Herbert:

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky ! "

So far as the æsthetic value of it went, I was monarch of all I surveyed, even though mile on mile of grandeur and glory was spread out before me. The quatrain of Lowell recurred to my mind :

"Tis heaven alone that is given away,
'Tis only God may be had for the asking;
No price is set on the lavish summer;
June may be had by poorest comer."

Before leaving the Peak, I watched a flock of birds eating from the waste-heap at the Summit House. They were the brown-capped rosy finches, called scientifically Leucosticte australis. Their plumage was a rich chocolate, suffused over neck, breast, and back with intense crimson, while the pileum was quite black. With one exception—the white-tailed ptarmigan—they range the highest in summer of all Colorado birds. They are never seen below timber-line in that season, and are not known to breed below twelve thousand feet; thence to the tops of the highest peaks they hatch and rear their young. In August old and young swarm over the summits picking edible insects from the snow, while in winter they descend to timber-line, where most of them remain to brave the arctic weather and its frequent storms.

Bidding a regretful goody-bye to the summit, for it held me as by a magician's spell, I hastened down the steep incline of the cog-wheel road, past Windy Point, and turning to the right, descended across the green slope below the boulder region to the open, sunlit valley which I had visited on the previous afternoon. It was an idyllic place, a veritable paradise for birds. Such a chorus as greeted me from the throats of I know not how many white-crowned sparrows, — several dozen, perhaps,—it would have done the heart of any lover of avian minstrelsy good to listen to. The whole valley seemed to be transfigured by their roundelays, which have about them such an air of poetry and old-world romance. During the morning I was so fortunate as to find a nest, the first of this species that I had ever discovered. Providence had never before cast my lot with these birds in their breeding haunts. The nest was a pretty structure placed on the ground, beneath a bush amid the green grass, its holdings consisting of four dainty, pale blue eggs, speckled with brown. The female leaped from her seat as I passed near, and in that act divulged her little family secret. Although she chirped uneasily as I bent over her treasures, she had all her solicitude for nothing ; the last thing I would think of doing would be to mar her maternal prospects. As has been said, in this valley these handsome sparrows were quite plentiful; but when, toward evening, I clambered over a ridge, and descended into the valley of Moraine Lake, several hundred feet lower than the Seven Lakes valley, what was my surprise to find not a white-crown there ! The next day I trudged up to the Seven Lakes, and found the white-crowns quite abundant in the copses, as they had been farther up the hollow on the previous day; and, besides, in a boggy place about two miles below Moraine Lake there were several pairs, and I was fortunate enough to find a nest. Strange—was it not?--that these birds should avoid the copsy swamps near Moraine Lake, and yet select for breeding homes the valleys both above and below it. Perhaps the valley of Moraine Lake is a little too secluded and shut in by the towering mountains on three sides, the other places being more open and sunshiny.

The upper valley was the summer home of that musician par excellence of the Rockies, the green-tailed towhee, and he sang most divinely, pouring out his "full heart In profuse strains of unpremeditated art."

Having elsewhere described his minstrelsy and habits with more or less fulness, I need give him only this passing reference here. A little bird with which I here first made acquaintance was an elegant species known as Audubon's warbler, which may be regarded as the western representative of the myrtle warbler of the East. The two birds are almost counterparts. Indeed, at first I mistook the Audubon for the myrtle. The former has a yellow throat, while the latter's throat is white.

In all the upper mountain valleys, and on the steep slopes of the western as well as the eastern side of the Divide, I had the Audubon warblers often at my elbow. In summer they make their homes at an altitude of seven to eleven thousand feet, and are partial to pine timber; indeed, I think I never found them elsewhere, save occasionally among the quaking asps. I learned to distinguish Audubon's chanson from those of his fellow-minstrels. It is not much of a song— a rather weak little trill, with a kind of drawl in the vocalization that forms its diagnostic feature. The persistency with which it is repeated on the solitary pine-clad mountain sides constitutes its principal charm.

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