Sunday, August 8, 2010

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Today Alan, Noel and I seek out a spot recommended by Carol Boggs, a butterfly expert at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. We return to Crested Butte, then head over Kebler Pass (where the myriad flowers are strangely devoid of butterflies) to Erickson Springs, a national forest campground bordering Coal Creek in the Paonia Valley.

The Springs' extensive riparian habitat brings us a couple of new prizes: a Sylvan Hairstreak and a pair of mating Aphrodite Fritillaries. Plenty of willows––the hairstreak's host plant––grow along the creek.

A worn Sylvan Hairstreak, superficially resembling a blue 
(Photo by Noel Snyder)

Aphrodite Fritillaries (Photo by Noel Snyder)

Onward, to the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison! Now a National Park for part of its length, this spectacular canyon drops an average of more than 95 feet each mile, over its 12-mile length within the park. At Chasm View, the Gunnison River falls 240 feet in a single mile. Formed of very hard metamorphic rock––Precambrian gneiss and schist––and liberally crosscut by lighter-colored dikes, the canyon was carved by the entrenched river at a rate of about an inch every 100 years.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Photo by Narca)

Along the entrance road, one early patch of Rabbitbrush is blooming and attracting good numbers of Mead's and Small Wood Nymphs, and Sonoran and Branded Skippers.

As we stand at the canyon's rim, gazing down more than 2700 feet to the churning river, Turkey Vultures, White-throated Swifts and Violet-green Swallows sail effortlessly above the abyss. In the distance a serious thunderstorm is building, spawning flash flood alerts over a wide area of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.

Hoping to outpace at least part of the storm, we continue driving the 53-mile length of the Black Canyon toward Lake City. The road is bordered by extensive stands of Big Sagebrush. The storm is looming. And suddenly, along the edge of the road, is the bird I most wanted to see in southwestern Colorado––a Gunnison Sage Grouse! The female is picking at bits of gravel, and when we stop for a quick look (noting her black belly) and quicker photo, she scurries across the road. Soon the storm is upon us.

Female Gunnison Sage Grouse (Photo by Narca)

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