Sunday, August 8, 2010

Above Timberline

Noel, my sister Lisa, and I venture up Nellie Creek today in a rental jeep, under brooding skies. The summer rains hold off for the entire time we hike in the alpenfields at the foot of Uncompahgre. For most of the day, the tip of the peak is swathed in cloud.

The four-mile road up Nellie Creek is narrow and rough, with few places for passing an oncoming vehicle––luckily, we don't meet any! Nellie Falls is exactly as Lisa and I remember it, a lovely two-tiered waterfall glimpsed through the aspens.

Nellie Falls (Photo by Narca)

At the end of the road is the major trail for hikers to climb 14,319-foot Uncompahgre. Lisa and I climbed it as teenagers, but we have no intention of doing that today! The tundra at the foot of the peak is too inviting.

Narca, Lisa & Uncompahgre (Photo by Noel Snyder)

The hike from the trailhead to above timberline isn't difficult. We must be adjusting to elevations in the 12-13,000 foot range. A muddy spot shows us that a Lynx has preceeded us along the trail.

Lynx tracks––see the shape and the lack of claw marks? 
(Remaining photos by Narca)

Once the day warms a bit, butterflies emerge in excellent numbers, especially the dark blizzard of Theano Alpines. Along with the Theanos are several Rocky Mountain Parnassians, Purplish Coppers, Mormon and Purplish Fritillaries, a few blues, Mead's Sulphurs, Queen Alexandra's Sulphur, and Scudder's Sulphurs.

Theano Alpine

Our main goal is the endemic Uncompahgre Fritillary, but chances are poor, and we don't find any. We are probably too late for their short, 2-week flight period. The annual census failed to turn up any at all this year. Closely related to the Dingy Fritillary of more northern climes, this butterfly is only known from the base of Uncompahgre at about 13,000 feet elevation and at a similar elevation on a nearby mountain, Red Cloud, where access is far more difficult than at Uncompahgre.

Uhler's Arctic

We do find a single weak, tattered individual of a species new to us, the Uhler's Arctic. We are also here after its main flight period, and count ourselves very lucky to have seen it. (I'm very glad to have some other association with the name "Uhler" than the blood-sucking Uhler's Kissing Bug, or Western Conenose, which inhabits the southwest!)

Marmots are lounging on a rocky ledge. We join them, creating quite a stir for the inquisitive family. One adult ignores us, continuing to gather mouthfuls of grass, while the two nearly-grown youngsters perfect their techniques of sunning and staring at strangers.

Noel suns with Yellow-bellied Marmots

Nesting right at timberline are White-crowned Sparrows, Mountain Chickadees, Gray-headed Juncos, and Gray Jays. We see a couple of uncooperative rosy finches foraging on the ground and clouds of Pine Siskins amid the fluffy seeds of composites.

Paintbrush on the Uncompahgre tundra

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