TELLURIDE, Colorado—Let me warn you about getting into a car with birders. You might have a destination, but there’s no telling when you’ll get there.
That’s because those eagle-eyed creatures—and I’m talking about the people—are trained to detect even the slightest flick of wings or a silhouette resting on a tree branch—which a mere urban mortal like me only perceives as blurs—and will stop the car at each sighting, scope and binoculars out and at the ready.
But I’m not complaining! Here we are, against the backdrop of the San Juan Mountains rising regally around us at 13,000 and 14,000 feet, with alpine flowers in bloom and beautiful aspens quivering in the breeze. It’s fairy-tale gorgeous.
I’m not a birder myself, but for half a day, I’m out with some travel companions, escorted by birding expert Eric Hynes. Every passionate community of hobbyists has its traits, and birders are known for being a friendly bunch. Hynes is no exception. He caught the birding bug early on, when he heard the haunting cry of a loon at a summer camp in Maine more than 30 years ago. (Ask your birding friends if there was a particular bird that converted them to their hobby—there most likely is one.)
Hynes leads birding trips locally in Telluride, Colorado, where he is based, as well as all over the world, as part of the Austin-based Field Guides. In partnership with the upscale The Hotel Telluride, he gives guests a taste of the local birding life.
Getting Out Into Nature
In Telluride, the wildlife watching is quite good, and I’m not just talking about the black bears that try to get into bear-proof garbage cans at night. (I was told the only reasons locals keep their doors locked at night is because of the gluttonous bears.)
I don’t really know what to expect as we set out on our birding escapade early in the morning. Birds are those kinds of creatures often in the background, and they’ve been with us so long they’ve made their way into our vocabulary, often in fun ways, from “wild goose chase” to “early bird catches the worm” to “crazy as a loon.”
It’s sort of a shock that the first bird we spot, as we pull over the road that leads to and from the box canyon where Telluride is situated, is a peregrine falcon. These birds have rock star status in the birding world—this is a bit like going celebrity sighting in Hollywood and running into Keanu Reeves.
One of the fastest birds in the world, the peregrine falcon is shaped somewhat like a streamlined rocket. When dive-bombing, with wings tucked in, it can reach up to 200 miles per hour. It kills prey by stunning them with the force of the impact from its talons, balled up into fists.
We saw about 30 types of birds during our excursion. Bird temperatures and lifestyles vary, much as those of humans do. We watched a solitary bald-headed eagle on a branch (or was it watching us?) from the roadside; and at Dan Noble State Wildlife Area, we jumped out of the car to watch cliff swallows flit busily about their business, presumably doing some housekeeping on their mud nests.
Not too far away (non-bird sighting alert) prairie dogs popped up here and there, looking rather adorable, and if that wasn’t enough, we also saw a doe and her fawn, keeping an eye on us as they bounded away.
In school, I’d been subjected to a tree identification class that was somewhat infamous, depending on the instructor you ended up with. Mine would drive us at 60 miles per hour to our ID site, passing by trees and interrogating us: “What’s that?” Things like that. It was frustrating because where he saw an aspen or a walnut tree, I only saw a vertical brown pole in blurry motion.
And then I realized that perhaps you develop a familiarity with the things you grow up with or care about. I could have identified the plants where I grew up easily—birches, eglantine, wild plum trees—but there in the unfamiliar hardwood forests of Michigan, almost nothing seemed familiar.
Familiarity is less about superb eyesight, say, than developing a feel for where you know certain birds belong, or their flying patterns. You might recognize a vague silhouette in flight almost instinctively before identifying the color of its plumage, for example.
When that happens, those birds—or those trees, or whatever it may be—become part of your world.
In the mountain town of Telluride, there is no shortage of ways to get outside.
One thing about spotting birds is that they don’t stay still. If you prefer your target more stationary, and have a bit of a foodie bend, try out mushroom hunting.
The day after birding, we go out on a foraging hike in the Lizard Head Wilderness area, led by Tara Butson, co-owner of San Juan Outdoor Adventures. She’s been mushroom hunting for more than 12 years. She knows mushrooms—and she knows the secret spots.
We wander through meadows and woods where sheep have been moving through. We first spot a few hidden wild strawberries—though you can bet the sheep did a good job finding most of them first.
Other hikers are few and we chance upon scaly hedgehogs (that’s a mushroom), and most luckily—porcini! We bring them back to The Hotel Telluride, where the chef sautés them for our enjoyment the next morning for breakfast. (As part of an annual Mountains & Morels package and excursion every August, the hotel organizes a three-night stay including a three-course dinner their chef prepares with the mushrooms you find, along with wine pairings).
Telluride has a pretty well-known Mushroom Festival, by the way, also every August. It touches on everything from cooking to cultivation to health.
Take a Hike
Another way to get out and enjoy nature in Telluride is simply through the many hikes available around town.
Many trailheads actually start out from town, such as the popular Bear Creek trail, majestically lined with aspens and leading to Bear Creek Falls. If you are looking for something a little more low-key but with plenty of charm, the flat River Trail, which runs right through town along the San Miguel River, with a few little bridges along the way, is serene, and you’ll catch locals going to and fro. For more of an adrenaline rush, head for the Via Ferrata, which involves traversing rock face on metal rungs while up to 600 feet above ground.
Just be conscious of the altitude—Telluride is at 8,750 feet—as it can take a few days to adjust, depending on the individual.
For rest and relaxation, head on over to the Telluride Salt Cave at Pure Beauty & Wellness Spa on Main Street. They have a small room with walls encrusted with thick chunks of Himalayan salt—said to be beneficial to your well-being, with anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.
The proof is in the pudding, I suppose. I went into a 45-minute session even as I was in the middle of work deadlines, and I fell asleep about 10–20 minutes in.
Wine With a View
Pick an evening to head up the gondola in town up to Station St. Sophia. It’s a fun way to travel, and it’s free.
At the station, look for signs to Allred’s. The views from the restaurant are as legendary as they come—purple mountain majesties seemingly within hand’s reach, just beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s worth at least stopping by for drinks and bites such as truffle fries and stuffed peppadew peppers.
If You Go
The Hotel Telluride, a cozy chalet-like boutique hotel with 59 rooms, offers a “Wings Over Telluride” birdwatching package at $1,099 (with a half-day birding excursion) or $1,249 (with a full-day birding excursion). It includes a three-night stay in a signature king or double room and daily breakfast for two. You can book the package through the hotel at 866-468-3501, at least 14 days in advance.
Note that bald eagles are prevalent from October through December. You can also catch sandhill cranes—and some 2,000 to 5,000 of them can be sighted near the Gunnison River during their migration. As for golden eagles, they can be spotted year-round.
You can fly into Telluride-Montrose Airport (MTJ), and then take a 75-minute shuttle ride over to Telluride; or book a flight straight into Telluride (TEX).
The author was a guest of The Hotel Telluride.