Mountain Chronicle Of Birds and Beasts

Mountain Life
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Mountain Life
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No wind disturbed the dry grasses in the meadow. And still the girls noticed a quivering in certain tall stalks of alpine fescue. It was September in southern Colorado, and we were picking wild strawberries, each of us crouched like baseball catchers, searching for little constellations of red.

Cloe pointed out a fescue stem that shook as if a chipmunk were attempting to pull down the dark, seed-rich head. We'd seen chipmunks do this: They climb up a single stem, hanging on like a pole vaulter until the stalk doubles over, returning the foraging furball to the ground along with his meal.

But there was no chipmunk in sight. Suddenly, the quaking grass shrank by one third, shuddered and dropped again, finally disappearing completely into the ground. It was as if a hungry earth had sucked down a spaghetti noodle. Then another fescue vanished. A pattern emerged, and at one point along the line a hole in the soft dirt revealed the scuttling culprit: a northern pocket gopher, about 5 inches long with a short, hairless tail and yellow front teeth. According to our mammal book, they are rarely seen above ground, preferring to work the subterranean supermarket for roots and shoots.

Growing up in the high country of western Colorado, the girls have happened upon wildlife more than they have actively sought it. One mid-day picnic, a daydreaming Cecily had her saltine snatched right out of her hand by a bold, fuzzy-headed gray jay. "Camp robbers," as they're known, will take advantage of any hospitality. They glide in on silent spread wings and flap off with whatever they can carry: leftover pancake balanced on a toe; a bread crust from on top of a hat; a piece of apple in an outstretched hand. The girls love the feel of their spiky little feet and the whistling coo they make in flight.

On hikes above treeline, the girls have become practically blasé as golden-coated marmots scatter at our approach. Cloe and Cec can imitate the high-pitched chirps the cat-sized creatures sound in alarm. Far more interesting to them are the reclusive pikas, small rabbit relatives who live in the rocks and very seldom allow a person near. With the patience of Buddha, the girls crawl out onto the slabs and sit, waiting, until at last the round-eared pikas come to them, convinced they are simply new lumps in the terrain.

Not all of our wild encounters are with critters small and meek. We inadvertently spooked a cow elk one day, an event of such power and noise we were all left trembling. She was bedded down in heavy timber. We approached from downwind and behind a slight rise. She didn't hear us until we were practically on top of her. When she did bolt, she filled the forest with her snorting panic, great brown flanks as tall as a horse, hooves crashing over logs and loose rock. She was gone in a flash, but her musky scent lingered until our racing hearts began to slow.

Coyotes are shy creatures. We see their scat everywhere (mouse and rabbit and possibly pocket gopher fur and bones in neat piles along a trail), but we rarely catch sight of them. A quick glimpse across distant green tundra, tireless at a brisk trot, bushy tails flashing, heads turning every so often because, of course, they knew about us long before we spotted them.

The nighttime serenade is another matter. Coyote, the "trickster" in Native American lore, has astonishing vocal talents and the bravado to sing seemingly next door to your camp. They don't just howl. Sometimes they do a very credible humpback whale song. Other times they sound like a pack of teenagers drinking. They can approximate the sound of a crackling fire. And one time—I swear this is true; my wife woke up and heard it too—they vocalized the tinkling noise bottles make when smashed against rocks.

Bears are even more reclusive. I did see one cinnamon-colored black bear bound across a dirt road in front of me as I drove. And I've seen bear tracks and bear sign on mountain bike rides through mid-elevation stands of oak and aspen. But I haven't yet in these Colorado mountains repeated the close encounters with bruin that I experienced as a kid camping in the Yosemite backcountry.

That honor goes to Cloe, who has practically bumped into bears twice in the past couple of summers. The first happened on a favorite run along the Portland trail outside the old mining town of Ouray, Colo. On a golden afternoon, Cloe was feeling fast and invincible when she popped over a lip and nearly landed on a sow and her cub browsing berries. The second time impressed her even more because of the bear's size. She and a friend were descending fast on their mountain bikes down Boreas Pass near Breckenridge, Colo., when a "really huge, very black" bear charged across the track and up the bank in front of them.

A lot of people see bears. Not very many have seen mountain lions. Even long-time mountain town locals have been skunked in this regard. I'm one of them. I have yet to see one of these tawny, super-secretive cats. Though in the piñon-juniper country where we now live, I am quite certain they have been watching me.

My wife Ellen and the girls saw one once, a big male right on the highway at dusk. They were coming home from gymnastics class, the road was otherwise empty, and there, sauntering in the headlights, huge tail and testes swinging from side to side, was the lion king. After a time, when he was good and ready, the cat moseyed off the pavement and cleared an 8-foot deer fence with ridiculous ease, disappearing into the night.

Big predators have such presence. None more, I think, than our resident golden eagles. Bald eagles, itinerant visitors in the winter months, have a fiercer look about the eyes. Goldens seem more lordly, more completely at home with their place at the top of the food chain. And in the air. I have lain on my back at 13,000 feet and listened to the rush of air on feathers as goldens play the warm updrafts. It is not a subtle sound; it ranks somewhere between a jet aircraft and a speedskier at 140 mph.

To catch the eye of a golden eagle is to link up directly with a wild truth. Any gap between the visceral and the spiritual vanishes. This happened the day we brought baby Cloe home from the hospital to Telluride. Motoring slowly up Dallas Divide in the old VW we watched a big golden, his wingspan longer than I am tall, lift off from an oak beside the road. Flying right to left, he seemed to fill our windshield at eye level. And just as he cleared, he turned and looked straight at us. It was a look of immense calm, a moment we have chosen to remember as a benediction.

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net, or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com.