Klemek Column: Birds of the San Juan Mountains

Submitted by Blane Klemek
Blane Klemek

I recently returned from another adventure in the Colorado Rockies, this time in an entire new area of the state. For nearly two weeks I roamed the steep and deep High Country of the San Juan Mountains, including the South San Juan Wilderness Area. Breathtakingly beautiful landscape, surprisingly hot weather for mid-September, and wildlife galore greeted me wherever my boots took me.

My favorite mountain feathered friends were all there, too. I said hello to Steller’s jays, mountain chickadees, Clark’s nutcrackers, Townsend’s solitaires, and dusky grouse. There were others as well, although familiar to us Minnesotans here at home—red-tailed hawks, common ravens, Cooper’s hawks, turkey vultures, and even American robins—all of which I encountered at elevations 10,000 feet and higher.

I especially enjoy observing and listening to Steller’s jays. Named after German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller in the 1700s, Steller’s jays are closely related to our own blue jay. Steller’s jays are also the only crested jay west of the Rockies. And in this new area of Colorado that I had never been before, flush new growth of fruit bearing shrubs such as gooseberry and elderberry growing beneath vast swaths of dead and dying spruce trees, produced an abundance of riches that Steller’s jays were taking advantage of. Indeed, the forest was filled with fruit-loving Steller’s jays. I’ve never observed so many of this species anywhere than in the San Juan’s.

Steller’s jays behave similarly to blue jays. Not only are they instantly recognizable as a cousin of blue jays, they’re noisy and anxious-acting just like blue jays are. These Rocky Mountain species of jay, which are slightly larger than blue jays, possess a much more pronounced crest on their heads than blue jays have. Their conspicuous looking blackish heads and upper bodies contrasts vividly with their bluish lower bodies and tails.

Another interesting bird that some people might confuse with the much more common black-capped chickadee is the mountain chickadee. However, upon closer examination, the black cap that we Minnesotans immediately recognize about our black-capped chickadee includes white “eyebrows” above black eye stripes. Both species share otherwise similar markings and coloration, such as black bibs and basic plumage color and patterns, but only mountain chickadees have the eye stripes.

And like black-capped chickadees, mountain chickadees are social and friendly behaving birds that readily come to investigate anything that captures their attention. Mountain chickadees seem delightfully indifferent to one’s presence and are a joy to have as company, though they usually will stay around for only a short period of time as they flit about, call to one another, and forage for seeds and insects as they come and go.

Then there is the interesting and raucous Clark’s nutcracker, one of my favorite Western species of birds. Related to jays, crows and ravens, the nutcracker is named after the explorer William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. Like their cousin the gray jay, Clark’s nutcrackers are noteworthy caching birds. They have extraordinary spatial memories that enable them to relocate in the wintertime most of the pine nuts and various seeds that they stored throughout the autumn months, even underneath several feet of snow.

Up to 33,000 seeds are cached each fall by foraging Clark’s nutcrackers. Luckily for the forest, Clark’s nutcrackers don’t remember where all their seed caches are. And so, leftover pine seeds are often germinate and grow into trees. Yet in southwest Colorado I observed only a handful of nutcrackers in the spruce and fir dominated San Juan National Forest, undoubtedly because Clark’s nutcrackers are more attracted and suited to pine dominated habitats.

So many different birds occupy this continent’s vast and different environments. Yet even these mentioned birds have familiar relatives here in Minnesota that we can draw comparisons to and observe similarities of, such as in song, shape, and behavior.

From the Townsend’s solitaire that’s related to robins and bluebirds to the dusky grouse, (though much larger than our own sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, and prairie chicken) are a grouse nonetheless that is immediately apparent despite their very large size.

Birds and more birds are everywhere we go, and thankfully so, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek