June 16, 2015
Our first hike at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was the Warner Point Trail, the westernmost point on the developed part of the South Rim. Beyond this point to the west and north are wilderness areas. This park, at least along the canyon rim, is highly accessible and a great place for nature exploring greenhorns who are unfamiliar with long hikes and outdoor ethics. I really appreciated these funny signs at the beginning of the trail, which look like they were drawn by Gary Larson and took a fresh stance on the typically dull park signs warning about the dangers of feeding wildlife and respecting the wildness of the terrain.
As we started walking the trail we looked out across the plains and farmland and on the far side saw what I think were the mountains we saw alongside the road on the way here, but there are so many gorgeous snow-capped peaks in this state that it’s hard to tell. As we walked through a forest of pinyon pines, juniper and scrub oaks, we were treated to stunning views on our left and right with brightly colored wildflowers in the foreground.
Wrenching my eyes from the vast views to look at the local plants, I noticed a cicada exuviae (the fancy scientific word for shed exoskeleton). Morgan and I began looking around for cicadas and quickly found some that looked identical to the Magicicada we saw at Mesa Verde.
All the plants and animals here live in the formidable and harsh environment of the canyon. Like the other trees that line the canyon, often clinging to the rocky walls, surrounded by a thousand or more foot drop, this little pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) is growing out from a tiny crack in the stone. Eventually, the roots of this tree will grow against the hard stone and, in order to continue growing, they will slowly find minuscule cracks to grow into and widen, creating a fissure in the stone which will eventually separate one piece of stone from another. Trees growing on the cliff faces work with the wind and the water to erode the canyon into new shapes as chunks of stone break off and smash toward the river below.
The views at the end of this trail emphasized the scale of this canyon for us. In both directions it stretched into the hazy, blue distance. To the west, the canyon is wilderness area within the National Park and the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, which is another 62,844 acres of wild space along the Gunnison River. In the other direction stretches the National Park, with it’s many stunning overlooks along South Rim Road. We crept very carefully to the edge of Warner Point and looked down at the deepest point in the canyon, 2, 772 feet down! The incredible depth and narrowness of the canyon—its sprawl made me feel tiny, insignificant and fleeting. The formidable drop into the canyon made me envy the birds who soar easily to isolated ledges far below where they are safe from all land predators.
As we turned to leave, a pair of birds flew past us to land on a dead tree. I snapped several photos with my high zoom lens before first one bird, then the other flew ahead of us. I was later able to use The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (top-notch birding guide) to identify this bird as Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana), which breaks open pine cones with it’s long beak for the seeds that if collects and stores in caches on slopes in crevices and exposed soil to use in the winter. Though this bird has an excellent ability to remember where it puts the seeds, I’m certain some seeds are lost or forgotten and begin to grow into the awe inspiring pines that cling to the cliff faces. In a way, these birds plant the trees necessary for their future food resources.
For most of our walk back down the trail, these same birds lead the way and I frantically tried to track them with my lens to get photos of them in flight. Though most of pictures were too blurry, I managed two that I’m very pleased with. This pair who were flying ahead and around Morgan and I in a manner that seemed playful, teasing us for our lack of wings and slow progress along the exposed earth of the trail, vanished suddenly.
I happened to look up a few moments later to see some sort of hawk soaring high above us. No wonder the little nutcrackers, who would be excellent prey for a large hawk to swoop down on, hid somewhere in the trees. I wonder if they saw the hawk coming or if they heard an alarm call from another bird. Dr. Erick Greene recently discovered that birds listen for alarm calls from other species and will hide if the alarm call goes up that a predator is coming. He also found that the alarm call could past through the forest on the bird communication network at a hundred miles an hour, which allows prey species to hide long before the predator get there.
It was a treat to get to see this hawk, even though it scared away the nutcrackers. Using this picture I took of the hawk as it flew overhead as a reference, I tried to identify it using the Sibley guide, which has a handy page showing diurnal raptors from below. I narrowed it down to either a juvenile northern harrier (Circus cyanus) or a juvenile Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni). Both are uncommon birds, which we would be lucky to see, but I’m inclined to think this is a Swainson’s Hawk, because of they have a white-face, rather than the dark head that is a key identifying feature of a juvenile northern harrier. The population of Swainson’s hawks has declined severely in recent years, and while no one is certain why, it is likely that the widespread use of insecticides kills this hawk’s food sources, which, unlike most raptors, includes mostly insects such as grasshoppers, moths, butterflies and beetles. If this was a Swainson’s hawk, then the young hawk already took his/her first great journey last fall during the astonishingly long migration to the pampas of Argentina. Like us, this hawk is a summer visitor to this park, here for just a short time to enjoy the uplifting canyon winds and the warmth of the sun on the rocks, before migrating on again. As Morgan and I drove back to camp, stopping at overlooks to enjoy the sunset, we kept our eyes to the skies for more glimpses of our avian neighbors.