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One of our pleasantest trips was taken up South Platte Canyon, across South Park, and over the range to Breckenridge. The town lies in the valley of the Blue River, the famous Ten Mile Range, with its numerous peaks and bold and rugged contour, standing sentinel on the west. Here we found many birds, but as few of them were new, I need not stop to enter into special detail.

At the border of the town I found my first green-tailed towhee’s nest, which will be described in the last chapter. A pair of mountain bluebirds had snuggled their nest in a cranny of one of the cottages, and an entire family of blues were found on the pine-clad slope beyond the stream; white-crowned sparrows were plentiful in the copses and far up the bushy ravines and mountain sides; western chippies rang their silvery peals; violet-green swallows wove their invisible fabrics overhead; juncos and Audubon’s warblers proclaimed their presence in many a remote ingle by their little trills; and Brewer’s blackbirds “chacked” their remonstrance at every intrusion into their demesnes; while in many a woodsy or bushy spot the long-crested jays rent the air with their raucous outcries; nor were the broad-tailed hummers wanting on this side of the range, and of course their saucy buzzing was heard wherever they darted through the air.

An entire day was spent in ascending and descending Peak Number Eight, one of the boldest of the jutting crags of the Ten Mile Range; otherwise it is called Tillie Ann, in honor of the first white woman known to scale its steep and rugged wall to the summit. She must have been a brave and hardy woman, and certainly deserves a monument of some kind in memory of her achievement, although it falls to the lot of few persons to have their deeds celebrated by a towering mountain for a memorial. While not as high by at least a thousand feet as Gray’s Peak, it was fully as difficult of access. A high ridge of snow, which we surmounted with not a little pride and exhilaration, lay on its eastern acclivity within a few feet of the crest, a white crystalline bank gleaming in the sun. The winds hurtling over the summit were as cold and fierce as old Boreas himself, so that I was glad to wear woollen gloves and button my coat-collar close around my neck; yet it was the Fourth of July, when the people of the East were sweltering in the intense heat of their low altitudes. It was a surprise to us to find the wind so much colder here than it had been on the twenty-eighth of June on the summit of Gray’s Peak, which is considerably farther north. However, there may be times when the meteorological conditions of the two peaks are reversed, blowing a gale on Gray’s and whispering a zephyr on Tillie Ann.

The usual succession of birds was seen as we toiled up the slopes and steep inclines, some stopping at the timber-line and others extending their range far up toward the alpine zone. In the pine belt below the timber-line a pair of solitaires were observed flitting about on the ground and the lower branches of the trees, but vouchsafing no song. In the same woodland the mountain jays held carnival a bacchanalian revel, judging from the noise they made; the ruby-crowned kinglets piped their galloping roundels; a number of wood-pewees western species were screeching, thinking themselves musical; siskins were flitting about, though not as numerous as they had been in the piny regions below Gray’s Peak; and here for the first time I saw olive-sided flycatchers among the mountains. I find by consulting Professor Cooke that their breeding range is from seven thousand to twelve thousand feet. A few juncos and ruby-crowned kinglets were seen above the timber-line, while many white-crowned sparrows, some of them singing blithely, climbed as far up the mountain side as the stunted copses extended.

Oddly enough, no leucostictes were seen on this peak. Why they should make their homes on Pike’s and Gray’s Peaks and neglect Tillie Ann is another of those puzzles in featherdom that cannot be solved. Must a peak be over fourteen thousand feet above sea-level to meet their physiological wants in the summery season? Who can tell? There were pipits on this range, but, for some reason that was doubtless satisfactory to themselves, they were much shyer than their brothers and sisters had been on Gray’s Peak and Mount Kelso; more than that, they were seen only on the slopes of the range, none of them being observed on the crest itself, perhaps on account of the cold, strong gale that was blowing across the snowy heights. A nighthawk was sailing in its erratic course over the peaks a bit of information worth noting, none of these birds having been seen on any of the summits fourteen thousand feet high. These matters are perhaps not of supreme interest, yet they have their value as studies in comparative ornithology and are helpful in determining the locale of the several species named. In the same interest I desire to add that mountain chickadees, hermit thrushes, warbling vireos, and red-shafted flickers belong to my Breckenridge list. Besides, what I think must have been a Mexican crossbill was seen one morning among the pines, and also a large hawk and two kinds of woodpeckers, none of which tarried long enough to permit me to make sure of their identity. The crossbill if the individual seen was a bird of that species wore a reddish jacket, explored the pine cones, and sang a very respectable song somewhat on the grosbeak order, quite blithe, loud, and cheerful.

On our return trip to Denver we stopped for a couple of days at the quiet village of Jefferson in South Park, and we shall never cease to be thankful that our good fairies led us to do so. What birds, think you, find residence in a green, well-watered park over nine thousand feet above sea-level, hemmed in by towering, snow-clad mountains? Spread out around you like a cyclorama lies the plateau as you descend the mountain side from Kenosha Pass; or wheel around a lofty spur of Mount Boreas, and you almost feel as if you must be entering Paradise. It was the fifth of July, and the park had donned its holiday attire, the meadows wearing robes of emerald, dappled here and there with garden spots of variegated flowers that brought more than one exclamation of delight from our lips.

SOUTH PARK FROM KENOSHA HILL

A paradise of green engirdled by snow-mantled mountains, making a summer home for western meadow-larks, Brewer’s blackbirds, desert horned larks, and western Savanna sparrows.

Before leaving the village, our attention was called to a colony of cliff-swallows, the first we had seen in our touring among the mountains. Against the bare wall beneath the eaves of a barn they had plastered their adobe, bottle-shaped domiciles, hundreds of them, some in orderly rows, others in promiscuous clusters. At dusk, when we returned to the village, the birds were going to bed, and it was interesting to watch their method of retiring. The young were already grown, and the entire colony were converting their nests into sleeping berths, every one of them occupied, some of the partly demolished ones by two and three birds. But there were not enough couches to go round, and several of the birds were crowded out, and were clinging to the side of the wall on some of the protubérances left from their broken-down clay huts. It was a query in my mind whether they could sleep comfortably in that strained position, but I left them to settle that matter for themselves and in their own way.

Leaving the town, we soon found that the irrigated meadows and bush-fringed banks of the stream made habitats precisely to the taste of Brewer’s blackbirds, which were quite plentiful in the park. My companion was “in clover,” for numerous butterflies went undulating over the meadows, leading him many a headlong chase, but frequently getting themselves captured in his net. Thus occupied, he left me to attend to the birds. At the border of the village a little bird that was new to me flitted into view and permitted me to identify it with my glass. The little stranger was the western savanna sparrow. South Park was the only place in my Colorado rambles where I found this species, and even his eastern representative is known to me very imperfectly and only as a migrant. The park was fairly alive with savannas, especially in the irrigated portions. I wonder how many millions of them dwelt in this vast Eden of green almost twice as large as the State of Connecticut! The little cocks were incessant singers, their favorite perches being the wire fences, or weeds and grass tufts in the pastures. Their voices are weak, but very sweet, and almost as fine as the sibilant buzz of certain kinds of insects. The pretty song opens with two or three somewhat prolonged syllables, running quite high, followed by a trill much lower in the scale, and closes with a very fine, double-toned strain, delivered with the rising inflection and a kind of twist or jerk “as if,” say my notes, “the little lyrist were trying to tie a knot in his aria before letting it go.” More will be said about these charming birds before the end of this chapter.

The western meadow-larks were abundant in the park, delivering with great gusto their queer, percussive chants, which, according to my notes, “so often sound as if the birds were trying to crack the whip.” The park was the only place above the plains and mesas where I found these gifted fluters, with the exception of the park about Buena Vista. It would appear that the narrow mountain valleys, green and grassy though they are, do not appeal to the larks for summer homes; no, they seem to crave “ampler realms and spaces” in which to spread their wings and chant their dithyrambs.

Where the natural streams and irrigating ditches do not reach the soil of the park it is as dry and parched as the plains and mesas. In fact, the park is only a smaller and higher edition of the plains, the character of the soil and the topography of the land in both regions being identical. Never in the wet, fresh meadows, whether of plain or park, only on the arid slopes and hillocks, will you find the desert horned larks, which are certainly true to their literary cognomen, if ever birds were. How they revel in the desert! How scrupulously they draw the line on the moist and emerald areas! Surely there are “many birds of many kinds,” and one might appropriately add, “of many minds,” as well; for, while the blackbirds and savanna sparrows eschew the desert, the horned larks show the same dislike for the meadow. In shallow pits dug by themselves amid the sparse buffalo grass, the larks set their nests. The young had already left their nurseries at the time of my visit to the park, but were still receiving their rations from the beaks of their elders. On a level spot an adult male with an uncommonly strong voice for this species was hopping about on the ground and reciting his canticles. Seeing I was a stranger and evidently interested in all sorts of avian exploits, he decided to give an exhibition of what might be called sky-soloing, as well as dirigible ballooning. Starting up obliquely from the ground, he continued to ascend in a series of upward leaps, making a kind of aerial stairway, up, up, on and up, until he was about the size of a humming-bird framed against the blue dome of the sky. So far did he plunge into the cerulean depths that I could just discern the movement of his wings. While scaling the air he did not sing, but having reached the proper altitude, he opened his mandibles and let his ditty filtrate through the ether like a shower of spray. It could be heard quite plainly, although at best the lark’s song is a weak, indefinite twitter, its peculiar characteristic being its carrying quality, which is indeed remarkable.

The soloist circled around and around in the upper air so long that I grew dizzy watching him, and my eyes became blinded by the sun and the glittering sky. How long he kept up his aerial evolutions, singing all the while, I am unprepared to announce, for I was too much engrossed in watching him to consult my timepiece; but the performance lasted so long that I was finally obliged to throw myself on my back on the ground to relieve the strain upon me, so that I might continue to follow his movements. I venture the conjecture that the show lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes; at least, it seemed that long to me in my tense state of body and mind. Finally he shot down like an arrow, making my head fairly whirl, and landed lightly on the ground, where he skipped about and resumed his roundelay as if he had not performed an extraordinary feat. This was certainly skylarking in a most literal sense. With the exception of a similar exhibition by Townsend’s solitaire to be described in the closing chapter up in the neighborhood of Gray’s Peak, it was the most wonderful avian aeronautic exploit, accompanied with song, of which I have ever been witness. It is odd, too, that a bird which is so much of a groundling I use the term in a good sense, of course should also be so expert a sky-scraper. I had listened to the sky song of the desert horned lark out on the plain, but there he did not hover long in the air.

The killdeer plovers are as noisy in the park as they are in an eastern pasture-field, and almost as plentiful. In the evening near the village a pair of western robins and a thieving magpie had a hard tussle along the fence of the road. The freebooter was carrying something in his beak which looked sadly like a callow nestling. He tried to hide in the fence-corners, to give himself a chance to eat his morsel, but they were hot on his trail, and at length he flew off toward the distant ridge. Where did the robins build their nests? I saw no trees in the neighborhood, but no doubt they built their adobe huts on a fence-rail or in a nook about an old building. Not a Say’s phoebe had we thus far seen on this jaunt to the mountains, but here was a family near the village, and, sure enough, they were whistling their likely tunes, the first time I had ever heard them. While I had met with these birds at Glenwood and in the valley below Leadville, they had not vouchsafed a song. What is the tune they whistle? Why, to be sure, it is, “Phe-be-e! phe-be-e! phe-e-e-bie!” Their voices are stronger and more mellifluent than the eastern phoebe’s, but the manner of delivery is not so sprightly and gladsome. Indeed, if I mistake not, there is a pensive strain in the lay of the western bird.

A few cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and spotted sandpipers were seen in the park, but they are too familiar to merit more than casual mention. However, let us return to Brewer’s blackbirds. Closely as they resemble the bronzed grackles of the East, there are some marked differences between the eastern and western birds; the westerners are not so large, and their manners and nesting habits are more like those of the red-wings than the grackles. Brewer’s blackbirds hover overhead as you come into the neighborhood of their nests or young, and the males utter their caveats in short squeals or screeches and the females in harsh “chacks.”

The nests are set in low bushes and even on the ground, while those of the grackles are built in trees and sometimes in cavities. To be exact and scientific, Brewer’s blackbirds belong to the genus Icolecophagus, and the grackles to the genus Quiscalus. In the breeding season the western birds remain in the park. That critical period over, in August and September large flocks of them, including young and old, ascend to favorite feeding haunts far above the timber-line, ranging over the slopes of the snowy mountains engirdling their summer home. Then they are in the heyday of blackbird life. Silverspot himself, made famous by Ernest Thompson Seton, did not lead a more romantic and adventurous life, and I hope some day Brewer’s blackbird will be honored by a no less effective biography.

What a to-do they make when you approach their outdoor hatchery! Yet they are sly and diplomatic. One day I tried my best to find a nest with eggs or bantlings in it, but failed, although, as a slight compensation, I succeeded in discovering three nests from which the young had flown. The old birds of both sexes circled overhead, called and pleaded and scolded, and sometimes swooped down quite close to my scalp, always veering off in time to avoid actual collision. A pair of them held choice morsels choice for Brewer’s blackbirds in their bills, and I sat down on a tuft of sod and watched them for a couple of hours, hoping they would feed their young in plain sight and divulge their secret to me; but the sable strategists flitted here and there, hovered in the air, dropped to the ground, visiting every bush and grass-tuft but the right one, and finally the worms held in their bills disappeared, whether into their own gullets or those of their fledgelings, I could not tell. If the latter, the rascals were unconscionably wary, for my eyes were bent on them every moment at least, I thought so. Again and again they flew off some distance, never more than a stone’s throw, strutted about for a few minutes among the tufts of grass and sod, then came back with loud objurgations to the place where I sat. They seemed to be aware of my inspection the moment my field-glass was turned upon them, for they would at once cease their pretended search for insects in the grass and fly toward me with a clamorous berating giving me a big piece of their mind. At length my patience was worn out; I began to hunt for nests, and found the three empty abodes to which allusion has been made.

For the most part the female cried, “Chack! chack!” but occasionally she tried to screech like her ebon consort, her voice breaking ludicrously in the unfeminine effort. The evening before, I had flushed a youngster about which a great hubbub was being made, but on the day of my long vigil in the meadow, I could not, by the most careful search, find a single bantling, either in or out of a nest. It is odd how effectually the young are able to conceal themselves in the short grass and straggling bushes.

Not a little attention was given to the western savanna sparrows, whose songs have already been described. Abundant proof was furnished that the breeding season for these little birds was at its height, and I determined to find a nest, if within the range of possibility. An entire forenoon was spent in discovering three nests. As you approach their domiciles, the cocks, which are always on the alert, evidently give the alarm to their sitting mates, which thereupon slip surreptitiously from the nest; and in that case how are you going to ferret out their domestic secrets?

A female I could distinguish her from her consort by her conduct was sitting on the post of a wire fence, preening her feathers, which was sufficient evidence that she had just come from brooding her eggs. To watch her until she went back to her nest, then make a bee-line for it that was the plan I resolved to pursue. It is an expedient that succeeds with many birds, if the observer is very quiet and tactful. For a long time I stood in the blazing sun with my eyes bent on the little impostor. Back and forth, hither and yon, she flew, now descending to the ground and creeping slyly about in the grass, manifestly to induce me to examine the spot; then back to the fence again, chirping excitedly; then down at another place, employing every artifice to make me think the nest was where it was not; but I steadfastly refused to budge from my tracks as long as she came up in a few moments after descending, for in that case I knew that she was simply resorting to a ruse to lead me astray. Finally she went down at a point which she had previously avoided, and, as it was evident she was becoming exceedingly anxious to go back upon her eggs, I watched her like a tiger intent on his prey. Slyly she crept about in the grass, presently her chirping ceased, and she disappeared.

Several minutes passed, and she did not come up, so I felt sure she had gone down for good this time, and was sitting on her nest. Her husband exerted himself to his utmost to beguile my attention with his choicest arias, but no amount of finesse would now turn me from my purpose. I made a bee-line for the spot where I had last seen the madame, stopping not, nor veering aside for water, mud, bushes, or any other obstacle. A search of a couple of minutes brought no find, for she had employed all the strategy of which she was mistress in going to the nest, having moused along in the grass for some distance after I had last seen her. I made my search in an ever-widening circle, and at length espied some dry grass spears in a tuft right at my feet; then the little prospective mother flitted from her nest and went trailing on the ground, feigning to be fatally wounded.

Acquainted with such tactics, I did not follow her, not even with my eye, but looked down at my feet. Ah! the water sprites had been kind, for there was the dainty crib, set on a high tuft of sod raised by the winter’s frosts, a little island castle in the wet marsh, cosey and dry. It was my first savanna sparrow’s nest, whether eastern or western. The miniature cottage was placed under a fragment of dried cattle excrement, which made a slant roof over it, protecting it from the hot rays of the sun. Sunken slightly into the ground, the nest’s rim was flush with the short grass, while the longer stems rose about it in a green, filmy wall or stockade. The holdings of the pretty cup were four pearls of eggs, the ground color white, the smaller end and middle peppered finely with brown, the larger almost solidly washed with pigment of the same tint.

Two more savannas’ nests were found not long afterwards, one of them by watching the female until she settled, the other by accidentally flushing her as I walked across the marshy pasture; but neither of them was placed under a roof as the first one had been, the blue dome being their only shelter. These birdlets seem to be especially fond of soggy places in pastures, setting their nests on the little sod towers that rise above the surrounding water.

All the birds seen in the park have now been mentioned. It was an idyllic spot, and I have often regretted that I did not spend a week in rambling over it and making excursions to the engirdling ridges and peaks. A few suggestive questions arise relative to the migratory habits of the feathered tenants of a mountain park like this, for most of those that have been named are only summer residents. How do they reach this immured Eden at the time of the spring migration? One may conjecture and speculate, but one cannot be absolutely sure of the precise course of their annual pilgrimage to their summer Mecca. Of course, they come up from the plains, where the spring arrives much earlier than it does in the higher altitudes. Our nomads may ascend by easy stages along the few canyons and valleys leading up from the plains to this mountain-girt plateau; or else, rising high in air at eventide for most birds perform their migrations at night they may fly over the passes and mountain tops, and at dawn descend to the park.

Neither of these hypotheses is free from objection, for, on the one hand, it is not likely that birds, which cannot see in the dark, would take the risk of dashing their brains out against the cliffs and crags of the canyons by following them at night; yet they may depart from their usual habit of nocturnal migration, and make the journey up the gorges and vales by day. On the other hand, the nights are so cold in the elevated regions that the little travellers’ lives might be jeopardized by nocturnal flight over the passes and peaks. There is one thing certain about the whole question, perplexing as it may be the feathered pilgrims reach their summer quarters in some way, and seem to be very happy while they remain.

We stopped at a number of places in our run down South Platte Canyon, adding no new birds to our list, but making some interesting observations. At Cassel’s a house-wren had built a nest on the veranda of the hotel where people were sitting or passing most of the time, and was feeding her tiny brood. In the copse of the hollow below the resort, the mountain song-sparrows were trilling sweetly the only ones we had encountered in our wanderings since leaving Arvada on the plains. These musicians seem to be rather finical in their choice of summer resorts. Chaseville is about a mile below Cassel’s, and was made memorable to us by the discovery of our second green-tailed towhee’s nest, a description of which I have decided to reserve for the last chapter of this volume. Lincoln’s sparrows descanted in rich tones at various places in the bushy vales, but were always as wild as deer, scuttling into the thickets before a fair view of them could be obtained.

The veranda of a boarding-house at Shawnee was the site of another house-wren’s nest. While I stood quite close watching the little mother, she fed her bantlings twice without a quaver of fear, the youngsters chirping loudly for more of “that good dinner.” At this place barn swallows were describing graceful circles and loops in the air, and a sheeny violet-green swallow squatted on the dusty road and took a sun-bath, which she did by fluffing up all her plumes and spreading out her wings and tail, so that the rays could reach every feather with their grateful warmth and light. It was a pretty performance.

A stop-over at Bailey’s proved satisfactory for several reasons, among which was the finding of the Louisiana tanagers, which were the first we had seen on this trip, although many of them had been observed in the latitude of Colorado Springs. Afterwards we found them abundant in the neighborhood of Boulder. The only pigmy nuthatches of this visit were seen in a ravine above Bailey’s. In the same wooded hollow I took occasion to make some special notes on the quaint calls of the long-crested jays, a task that I had thus far deferred from time to time. There was an entire family of jays in the ravine, the elders feeding their strapping youngsters in the customary manner. These birds frequently give voice to a strident call that is hard to distinguish from the cries of their kinsmen, the mountain jays. When I pursued the couple that were attending to the gastronomical wants of their children, one of the adults played a yodel on his trombone sounding like this: “Ka-ka-ka, k-wilt, k-wilt, k-wilt”, the first three short syllables enunciated rapidly, and the “k-wilts” in a more measured way, with a peculiar guttural intonation, giving the full sound to the k and w. The birds became very shy when they thought themselves shadowed, not understanding what my pursuit might imply, and they gave utterance to harsh cries of warning that were different from any that had preceded. It was presently followed by a soft and friendly chatter, as if the birds were having an interview that was exclusively inter se. Then one of them startled me by breaking out in a loud, high key, crying, “Quick! quick! quick!” as fast as he could fling the syllables from his tongue. This, being translated into our human vernacular, obviously meant, “Hurry off! danger! danger!” A few minutes of silence followed the outburst, while the birds ambled farther away, and then the echoes were roused by a most raucous call, “Go-ware! go-ware! go-ware!” in a voice that would have been enough to strike terror to the heart of one who was not used to uncanny sounds in solitary places. After that outburst the family flew off, and I could hear them talking the matter over among themselves far up the mountain side, no doubt congratulating one another on their hair-breadth escape. The youngsters looked quite stylish with their quaint little blue caps and neatly fitting knickerbockers.

At Bailey’s I found my first and only white-crowned sparrow’s nest for this trip, although two years before I was fortunate enough to discover several nests in the valleys creeping from the foot of Pike’s Peak. At dusk one evening I was walking along the railway below the village, listening to the sweetly pensive trills of the white-crowns in the bushes bordering the creek, when there was a sharp chirp in the willows, and a female white-crown darted over to my side of the stream and slipped quietly into a thick bush on the bank. I stepped down to the spot, and the pretty madame leaped away, uncovering a well-woven nest containing four white eggs speckled with dark brown. All the while her spouse was trilling with might and main on the other side of the creek, to make believe that there was nothing serious happening, no nest that any one cared anything about. His mate could not disguise her agitation by assuming nonchalance, but flitted about in the willows and chirped pitifully. I hurried away to relieve her distress. The cottages on the slopes were gay with tourists enjoying their summer outing, and beautiful Kiowa Lodge, perched on a shoulder of the mountain among embowering pines, glowed with incandescent lights, while its blithe-hearted guests pursued their chosen kinds of pastime; but none of them, I venture to assert, were happier than the little white-crown in her grassy lodge on the bank of the murmuring stream.

On the way down the canyon, as we were going to Denver, I was able to add three belted kingfishers to my bird-roll of Colorado species, the only ones I saw in the Rockies.

Our jaunt of 1901 included a trip to Boulder and a thrilling swing around the far-famed Switzerland Trail to Ward, perched on the mountain sides among the clouds hard by the timber-line. Almost everywhere we met with feathered comrades; in some places, especially about Boulder, many of them; but no new species were seen, and no habits observed that have not been sufficiently delineated in other parts of this book. If one could only observe all the birds all the time in all places, what a happy life the bird-lover would live! It is with feelings of mingled joy and sadness that one cons Longfellows melodious lines:

“Think every morning when the sun peeps through
The dim, leaf-latticed windows of the grove,
How jubilant the happy birds renew
Their old, melodious madrigals of love!
And when you think of this, remember too
’Tis always morning somewhere, and above
The awakened continents, from shore to shore,
Somewhere the birds are singing evermore.”