Persistently Pursuing Ptarmigans and other Bird Camp Stories

By October 24, 2023Education

I’ve always been taught and experienced that camp is all about the grout. The bricks of what we do–our themes and our programs – are of course important and impactful. These things bring our group together and are the foundation of what we hope campers take away from the experience of camp. But as I look back on my seasons as a Camp Director and counselor before that, the moments I think of most often are the moments in between the big things. They’re the glue that holds it all together and cements the impact camp had on my life. This summer at Bird Camp is no different. I’ve included a few of our favorite stories of awe, wonder, and dirt that wove together the whole of what we did this season.

Persistently Pursuing Ptarmigans:

A cool gust of wind came over the mountains–reaching across the valleys and lakes below. At 12,000 feet the heat of summer was left behind us and we felt the cool breeze coming off the tundra. Our group had gathered here in search of a new ecosystem and the birds that are unique to this space. The day started early, loading our gear and lunches into the vans, leaving behind our cabins in search of this more wild space. From our basecamp, we drove into Rocky Mountain National Park, stopping along the way to admire the audience of mountain peaks all around. A Pine Grosbeak flew overhead and Clark’s Nutcrackers hopped from tree top to tree top, but we still ventured on seeking none other than the elusive ‘rock chicken’. Our sights were set on finding a White-tailed Ptarmigan, a resident of the alpine tundra here in Rocky Mountain. With their well adapted camouflage we knew that it was a slim chance to see one of these birds here, but we hoped regardless. The day went on and our species list grew, but with a resounding vacancy on our list of tundra species. As the hours passed and we made it to our final walking path, we knew that it wasn’t likely we would see our beloved ptarmigan. Walking on, past the resting bull elk and blooming alpine wildflowers, we scoured the rocky area for any signs of life. Passing birders confirmed our fears that they had not seen any ptarmigan along the trail ahead, but still we hiked on. Just as the path began to disappear and our turn around point approached the group stopped. Binoculars scanning the grasses and rocky surfaces, soon hung low as we accepted defeat. Conversations started up, thinking toward our roosting time (cabin or rest time) and dinner. It was of course in this moment that mid-sentence a camper voice chimed in ‘HOLY S***’. As was reflex, a staff jumped in to correct the camper’s language as they realized what the camper had spotted. At about 30 feet away, stood a White-tailed Ptarmigan munching on wildflowers among the rocks. It was a good day.

A digi-scoped photo of the White-tailed Ptarmigan.

The Traffic Attendant:

You never know what to expect driving through any national park and Rocky Mountain is no exception. On our drive into the park along Trail Ridge Road our eyes are set on the vistas all around and seeking birds as they fly over. Though during our On the Wing camp program it would turn out that some of the sights would be right in front of us. Coming around the bend, brake lights light up ahead and we see stopped traffic along the opposite side of the road. As we slow down, expecting to see a stalled car or pedestrian taking photos, we’re surprised to see a traffic attendant directing traffic. The attendant? A single coyote, seemingly grinning ear to ear, trotting along the center of the opposite lane setting the pace for all the cars to follow.

Our Overnight Campers taking a break from driving Trail Ridge Road.

A BEARly Bearable Neighbor:

As the day came to a close we gathered the group together for a short night activity before turning in for the night. Our group circled up and began the game of bat-moth, laughing and beginning to relax into the calm of the evening. After a round or two, we began to take our places for a final game. Just as eyes began to close and the game was about to begin, a camper across the circle raised her arm and pointed behind us declaring ‘BEAR’. We all turned just in time to see a large black bear barreling along the road toward us. It paused to look us all over before continuing on the trail up the mountain, leaving us all stunned with the close encounter.

A Muddy Mess:

In our Birding Adventure Camp, we aim to help our campers better understand all of the different types of ecosystems occupied by birds and the deeply connected roles that birds play in these ecosystems. Our group of adventurers, fresh off of days spent along mountain creeks and prairie vistas, had returned to Barr Lake for a day of exploration. Walking along the dam our group looked high and low for bird species and signs of life–though truth be told the mosquito life had found us. Pausing for lunch and for a short rest at the boat ramp area we recounted the day’s sightings thus far, enjoying a break in the shade and the chance to itch our bug bites. After lunch, we set our sights on the water. We were aiming to better understand the smaller fauna that become food sources for our birds and indicate the overall health of the lake. Not a week prior we had explored this aquatic environment finding dozens of representative macroinvertebrates. It would seem though that this was not the case for this group.

From the sandy shore, we set campers to start searching. With nets in hand they sorted through leaf litter and debris finding few worms and snails–and of course made some sand structures. Somewhat defeated, we looked to the canal and scaled down the steep side looking to where we had found salamanders just a few short days ago. Several scoops later and with some very stinky mud retrieved, we returned to the group to sort through what we had found. Which was nothing more than a few worms. As staff we looked at our options. Continue on in the mud or move to a different section of the park, and move we did. We loaded up and ventured to the nature center, to the canal section with a bit more vegetation, water flow and shade cover. Our fearless seasonal camp staff Cory, went out first to test the waters. Only to be chased back by what might have been the largest mob of mosquitoes we had seen. Some days we end up with these moments, hands covered in mud and a flop of an activity in the way we intended. At the end of it all though, the message came through–we talked about why we could be seeing so few things and the impact of heavy rains on our lake habitat.

About Bird Camps: Bird Camps each year bring together campers of many different backgrounds all around their combined interest and love for birds. We have the incredible opportunity to share our knowledge, explore ecosystems and take these groups on adventures to deepen their understanding of the natural world and how birds fit into it. Our overnight bird camp programs are a unique experience for teens interested in ornithology and pursuing their passion in natural resource study. Day camp programs like Birding Adventure Camp aim to help young birders progress through learning the basics of birding while giving them the tools to deepen their birding skill set.

Camp registration for Summer 2024 opens on November 1st at 6 a.m. Learn more about Bird Camps HERE!

Becky Heath is the Camp Manager for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.