On safari, five miles from home in Basalt

By Paul Hilts
A bald eagle atop a tree.
Paul Hilts

In early March of 2020, my wife Marjorie and I returned to Basalt from a wildlife safari in South Africa. Within a few weeks, the world was shutting down with the first big wave of Covid-19. Restaurants, movie theaters, even the ski lifts were closing. It looked like we could be holed up at home for quite some time.

But one snowy day in late March, we decided to do a little safari drive of our own. With my bird spotter at the wheel, we set off on a trip up the Frying Pan Valley outside of Basalt. Within five miles, we came across a herd of bighorn sheep foraging for food along the road. And then, just across the road, and right above us, was an American bald eagle. It stared down at us and the sheep, with the snow streaking in front of it. After a few minutes, it tired of watching us and spread its huge wings, taking off down the valley. I’d never seen anything like it.

In the weeks and months afterward, we discovered deer, great horned owls, red foxes, red-tail hawks, elk and osprey. After photographing sports for many years, there was something about trying to capture a flying raptor in its own environment that presented a new challenge during lock down and limited travel options. In the past two years, we’ve found numerous opportunities to photograph these creatures — all within 5 miles of home. Here are a few highlights.


Bald eagles generally mate for life, unless one meets an untimely end. While they usually spend the winters alone, they meet up again in late February or early March and begin fixing up the same nest they have used in the past. This parent was working in the early morning on the first day of March with the sun reflecting off the snow below.

Paul Hilts

Eagles generally live to be anywhere from 20-30 years old. Even though they have made a dramatic comeback after the banning of the pesticide DTD, which caused thinning of the bird’s shell, eagles still have a very high mortality rate. Cars, trains, wires and polluted or poisoned water are all contributing factors. One study found that only 30% of eagles survive their first year of life.

I spotted this juvenile one cold and clear January morning at Old Pond Park in Basalt. I had seen it a few times previous to this with an adult, but never alone. I spent almost an hour walking around the pond and around the tree it was perched in. It had one eye on the sky, waiting for its parent to return with a fish, and the other on me. 

Juvenile eagle
Paul Hilts

In May of this year, following a late snow, I was driving up the Frying Pan looking for interesting cloud, snow and rock images when I came across one of the parents sitting in its tree wondering what had happened to spring.

Paul Hilts


Smaller than a bald eagle but one of the larger birds of prey, osprey have wing spans of up to 5 feet. They also have an interesting lifestyle. Like eagles, they generally mate for life. In the early spring, they show up at their previous nest and start remodeling, similar to bald eagles. After hatching, chicks usually begin to fly at about 2 months old, learning how to fish from their parents. 

In the early fall, the parents split up and begin their journey to Central America, or even South America, where they spend the winter apart. As spring approaches, they reverse course and head back north, meeting up at the same place where they said goodbye the previous fall, and the entire process repeats itself.

Oftentimes, while the female is watching the eggs or babies, the male is out fishing — and the Roaring Fork River is a smorgasbord. Osprey can spot a fish from a hundred feet above the water and swoop down from behind, while always grabbing fish so the head faces forward, making the now-joined pair more aerodynamic. 

Paul Hilts

Osprey chicks, pictured below, usually begin to fly at about two months. It takes nearly another two months to learn from the parents how to fish and survive on their own. During this time, they hang around the nest before beginning their own migration south in early autumn.

Paul Hilts

Here (below), a returning adult spreads its wings for takeoff to gather more material for the spring nest remodel.

Paul Hilts


The great blue heron has been described as both gangly when standing on land and elegant when flying. I’ve seen them everywhere, from the very top of a pine tree in the Frying Pan River valley, to a rock, not 20 feet from someone paddling around the Basalt Fisherman’s Park, patiently waiting for a small fish to come by for dinner. Although they generally feed on very small fish that they can swallow whole, I once saw one spear an overgrown koi at Lake Christine. It spent half an hour trying to get the overgrown goldfish off its beak.

I captured the following image from above the Roaring Fork River. I spotted this heron as it gracefully glided down the valley and past me, before landing on a pile of dead branches along the side of the river, not 20 feet from a fisherman. Within seconds, it spotted the fisherman and decided that wasn’t going to work, so it immediately took off back up the river.

Paul Hilts
A blue heron bringing in materials to build its nest above the Roaring Fork River.
Paul Hilts
A blue heron glides over Lake Christine outside of Basalt.
Paul Hilts


Red-tailed hawks are probably the most common predators in North and Central America and can commonly be seen in both the Frying Pan and Roaring Fork Valleys. They tend to be here year-round, as opposed to some of the other raptors spotted during the course of a year. 

One freezing cold January morning during the pandemic, I looked out the window and spotted a red-tail on the light pole outside Basalt Middle School. I threw on a pair of sweatpants and Sorrels to cover my bare feet, and shuffled out into the snow. Facing into the early morning sun to try to warm up, this one sat for quite some time, not bothered by my crunching around in the snow down below. Finally, he set off and came straight towards me, as if to give me one last chance to capture an interesting image.

Paul Hilts

Red-tailed hawks tend to hang out near open fields during the cold winter months to hunt for rodents. I spotted this one in a tall tree at Emma.

Paul Hilts

In the past month we have spotted every one of these birds, not to mention foxes and a bear, while riding our bicycles. How many places in the world can you do that, and it’s all right here in our own backyard? 

Feel free to contact Paul with questions or thoughts at

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