Colorado: High Plains & Rocky Mountain NP
(February 10th-15th 2019)
It’s become an annual tradition that my Dad & I head out on a photo adventure every Winter and this year we went back to Colorado for the 4th time in 5 years. We’ve always liked the combination of raptors, wildlife and scenics that can provide a variety of subjects in areas that we can reach in a shorter trip. After landning in Denver we headed southeast to the High Plains region of the state, where vast open farmlands dominate the landscape and cows outnumber people in towns. The goal for the first night was to check out an area that we had a pair of Great Horned Owls at in 2015 & 2016 around the same time and hoped they’d still be in that spot. As luck would have it they were there and showed up right before dusk! There wasn’t much light to shoot the owls but we had one of the most incredible sunsets unfold in front of us here. Looking down one way the colorful streaking clouds matched up with the direction of the ruts in the dirt road and the other direction the sky looked like it was a completely different breathtaking sunset with deeper pinks and horizontal cloud lines. This dramatic sky made for the perfect background to capture a silhouette of one of the owls sitting on a fence post and create a beautiful scenic image. It was the perfect way to end our first night there and welcome us back to one of our favorite places to adventure.
The next morning we woke up before sunrise to get ready and head out for first light. Unfortunately there was a thick fog everywhere and blocked out the night early morning light. We cruised around looking for subjects that could work in these conditions and I immediately thought of one of my favorite trees. We came across this lone cottonwood tree on our first trip out here in 2015 and I’ve photographed it every time that we’ve been back under all different lighting and conditions. This time the moody foggy vibes inspired me to turn the image into a black & white edit, which I barely ever do but was happy with the finished product. The fog finally broke in early afternoon and we were able to get back to shooting conditions if we found any good raptors. Luckily we came across a Golden Eagle not long after we got our light back and I was able to capture a cool shot of him hopping around on a tall power line pole. While cruising down another dirt road we saw a Greater Roadrunner moving quickly alongside us and like in the cartoon they really are super quick! I was able to fit him in the frame as he was on the move and even shows him mid stride! It’s my first ever image of one so I was excited to add a new species to the collection. Right down the road I saw this colorful abandoned farmhouse that caught my eye and we stopped so I could try for some scenic images. Really loved the overall look of the landscape around the house as well and the sky contrasted perfectly. We made our way back to the spot from the night before to try for more shots of the Great Horned Owls but it was crazy windy so the owls must’ve been hunkered down and we never saw them. On the way back to the hotel we stopped by my favorite tree one more time and I snapped a few shots with the last bit of color from sunset on the horizon behind it.
The next morning would be our last waking up in Lamar and one last ride around our spots before starting to make our way northwest. We had a pretty productive run on this day with several different variations of Red-tailed Hawks, Rough Legged Hawks and a few more Golden Eagles that cooperated fairly well to let us get some cool shots. Looking at maps & GPS we try to always take the most scenic back roads available rather than the biggest highways on these trips and we kind of freestyled a route that ended up working out well. We passed by another abandoned farm in the middle of nowhere that was cool to walk around and snap a few shots of. The drive to Estes Park would take a little over 4 hours by going the quickest route possible but took us just over 7 hours to give us more possible photo opps along the way. The scenery changed dramatically as we entered Big Thompson Canyon along Rte 34 on the final leg to Estes Park, with the river running right alongside the road and huge granite walls on both sides of you. We even saw an adult Bald Eagle flying up the river and then cut to head directly over our car while we were driving and luckily I happened to just be filming some video at the time! Once the Rocky Mountains really come into view it’s such a surreal scene that that still amazes me every time despite a number of trips out there. We checked into our hotel for the next 3 nights just before sunset and while standing outside the room I noticed the sky above the mountains was starting to turn all yellow and orange. Knowing that we wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere else in time I grabbed a telephoto zoom and starting firing away as the sun continued to dip below the mountains. We had gotten in town just in time for me to capture this unbelievable scene that greeted our arrival!
The next morning we woke up early and were greeted some some insane winds before even getting into the park. Car doors were thrown open if you didn’t hang on and it made any kind of photography quite difficult. We had clear blue skies though so had to take advantage of the landscape in the park as the conditions could change at any moment. I decided to walk out into the field at Morraine Park to try some different compositions with the snowy peaks in the background and had to really brace myself as the winds were already kicking up to 45+ mph! Using a tripod wasn’t an option in this winds so I had to handhold everything and kick up the shutter speeds as fast as possible. Shortly after we were driving to another section of the park when I saw the perfect double yellow lined road lined with trees and curving down towards a snowy peak so I knew I had to get out for this view. We stopped off at the Bear Lake parking lot and made the super short hike over to the frozen lake bearing the same name. The wind had picked up even more and the snow on these trails was well above the fence rails and probably over 5ft high. The view from the lake is always a beautiful one and I captured some shots before retreating back to the car. As the day progressed the wind would stay the craziest I’ve ever personally experienced and clouds rolled in to bring snow showers earlier than forecasters had predicted. On multiple trips this time of year into the park we had never had much bird activity besides Magpies and a few Ravens, but later this afternoon while driving in the increasing snow there was a huge Golden Eagle on the grass eating a fresh kill with a Raven waiting patiently for leftover scraps. The eagle flew away with it’s food before I could get any shots to what he was eating but I did get the Raven snacking away on what had stayed behind. With the uncertainty of how quickly storms can worsen we called it an earlier day and went back to the hotel to rest up.
Thursday would be our final full day in Rocky Mountain NP so we got an early start to cover as much ground possible. It was a very windy morning again so conditions were still unfavorable for shooting. Heading back to Morraine Park we found not only one but two Rough-legged Hawks hunting in the field there and added another species to the short list of raptors seen in the park. Guessing the habitat has changed just enough to allow for more smaller critters that both the Golden Eagle & Rough-legged Hawks can feed on to sustain food there. We drove up Trail Ridge Road as far as we could before where it had been shut down at for the season because of weather conditions, getting a bit over 9,000ft above sea level. The views from up were incredible despite being partiality blocked by higher elevation snow that was falling. We saw some groups of Elk and Mule Deer throughout the day but were bummed to not have any Coyotes roaming the fields on this trip. On both our previous trips to the park we were extremely lucky to find the tiny Northern Pygmy Owl and decided this afternoon to push for a perfect 3 for 3, which is the perfect comparison of finding a needle in a haystack every time. The wind luckily calmed down enough to give us a better chance of finding one as the main way to find them is to listen for their distinct high pitched toot they have for a call. As snow began to fall again we found one of these tiny guys in a lower pine tree and quickly grabbed our gear to snap off a few shots before he moved to a higher location and continued calling. The owl is just over 6” tall and looked like a big sparrow in flight. Hard to believe that such good hunters and can take down prey even bigger than them! We got some really cool scenic shots of the owl up in a dead tree with the snow falling down around him and being pushed sideways by the wind. Although slightly shaky I was above to get a few video clips when he was perched up there and you can even hear him calling as well! It was the perfect way to end our last night of another successful trip and getting one of our main targets we had set for ourselves. The next morning we made our way to a park close to the airport where we had a number of Long Eared Owls on a previous trip but unfortunately struck out this around. It had been too windy for my Dad & I to take a remote shot of us together for a trip pic in previous days so I was able to setup for a shot of us with the mountains in the background behind Barr Lake. We’re already talking about where we may head for next Winter’s trip so it’ll be fun to plan year six’s trip soon enough!