Baked Potato on Stilts

Posted by Jane N on

Hello everyone,
Well we sisters had a wonderful time visiting Jeanine in Colorado! I saw some amazing new birds like the Steller's Jay, Black-billed Magpie & Mountain Bluebird in the Rocky's There will be plenty of stories to share around the campfire. But there is one particular birding story I just have to share now.
We left Fort Collins on Saturday to head to Denver because Becky needed to fly out early Sunday morning and Sissy was leaving Sunday afternoon. Chris & I were staying until Monday morning. Jeanine drove to Denver to spend the day with us and we all had a nice day at the Denver Zoo. After Becky left we three sisters decided to rent a car and explore a nature refuge that was close to our hotel.
The Rocky Mountain Arsenal, National Wildlife Refuge was a war-time chemical manufacturing site that has been transformed into a wildlife sanctuary. We stop at the visitors center and are told that there are a number of Burrowing Owls on the refuge. This is exciting news! The park ranger tells us to look among the Prairie Dog towns for the owls who take over the prairie dog burrows. She tells us to look for baked potatoes on stilts, that the fledgling owls will be popping in and out of the burrow waiting for the parents to return with a meal. There is one main road that leads to a couple of small lakes with trails around them. Most of the roads have signs warning Authorized Vehicles Only or Active Military Site. We excitedly head for the lakes trail watching all the prairie dogs along the side of the road hoping to see baked potatoes on stilts.
We walked a beautiful trail around one of the smaller lakes. We saw a Mule Deer, Violet-Green Swallows, and the vibrant Bullock's Oriole but sadly no Burrowing Owls. The heat was intense, we sat under the shade of some tall trees and ate lunch. It was time to get Sissy back to catch the shuttle to the airport, as we drove back we watched carefully all the prairie dogs burrows for baked potatoes on stilts...none. There were plenty of those cute little prairie dogs, they were popping in and out of their burrows just like whack-a-mole at the arcade.
After Chris & I had dinner we decided since we still had the rental car lets take one more drive through the park in search of those baked potatoes on stilts. The park closed at 6 pm, it was only a little after 5, so we figured we had some time. When we were at the visitors center the ranger had given us a map where she circled the areas most likely to see Burrowing Owls, we decide to check out one of the shorter trails circled.
The heat was scorching, in the high 90's even late in the day. We park and Chris suggests that I try to climb up the rocky hillside rather than take the longer switch back trail to the top of the plateau. She only had on sandals and wouldn't be able to make it up, she suggested that if I see any baked potatoes on stilts when I get up there to wave and she'll come up the long way.
Um mm sounded like a good idea...NOT!
The rocky hillside was a jumbled bunch of loose rocks and they moved as I was climbing sending dirt and gravel into the pile. Each time the rocks shifted I would hear chattering and screeching coming from the rock pile. There were critters living in there that did not appreciate me disturbing their homes. I decide to jump off the rocks onto the brushy hillside...not such a good idea. The prairie grass cuts like razors! My ankles and hands were getting slashed! Ouch! But at this point, I was closer to the top than the bottom so I keep going.
When I get to the top my head is pounding, I'm sweating profusely, it's darn hot on this prairie what am I doing this is crazy...all in the search of baked potatoes on stilts. The high altitude combined with the heat has my brain in a fog. But wait..there ahead is a prairie dog town, the little fellows are running and chattering popping in and out of their burrows. The ranger circled this area as good viewing, I'm here, might as well take a look. I scan the area with my binoculars, the heat waves distort the images, but then it happens. Yup, there is a baked potato on stilts. Um mm well no it doesn't really look the Burrowing Owl..or maybe it does... the heat is baking me I can't think straight.
I look a couple more times, I'm pretty sure that I see an owl. What I see is NOT a prairie dog that I'm sure of. It is much darker and round, and the wind is ruffling the feathers on its head. Prairie dogs don't have anything on their heads to ruffle. I look away to wipe the sweat from my eyes, when I look back it's gone. I scan the prairie and see it again, then it is gone just as fast. I decide to motion to Chris to come up, she has to come up here and help me identify my sighting...as she likes to say to "confer & confirm ".
She hurries up the switch back trail and gets to where I am standing, but alas she doesn't get to see what I saw. There are no dark brown rounded little bodies popping up and down the burrows. It is hot hot hot! I ask Chris if she thinks we can make it to a bench that is closer to the prairie dog town so we can get a better look. She says we could make it there but then we have to make it back and that it's getting late the park will be closing soon. I notice something troubling, I'm no longer sweating and I don't have any more water, the heat is too much. So we head back to the car.
When we get to the main gate we see that it's closed! Oh No! Now, what do we do? I'll be honest I was getting nervous, I was worried we were going to have to call 911 and explain why we were on the wrong side of the gate. Chris remains cool, she tries another exit, but it only brings us back to the main gate. We backtrack to another side road but the signs warn UXO (unexploded ordinance) Authorized Vehicles Only, Chris is ready to take the road to see if it leads out but I caution against it.
Chris remembered that there was a small sign on the main gate, that maybe it has a phone number we can call to have someone let us out. So we head back to the main gate, she slowly drives up close and tells me to read the sign. It says....caution moving gate...as the car gets close enough it triggers the gate to open. We never were locked in! We head back to the hotel and jump into the pool to cool off.
As I laid in bed that night I went over our folly. My younger sister is a real trooper, she was willing to break laws and risked injury just to help me realize a goal and see the Burrowing Owl. Well after going over my bird guides and the great pictures in my NOOK I realize what I saw was Juvenile Burrowing Owls, they are darker and rounder than the adults. So they didn't actually look like baked potatoes on stilts they looked more like a small meatloaf popping in & out of their burrows.
Great memories for sure. Thank you Chris
Current Big Year Total.........198
Happy Birding, Jane

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