Category: Bird Walks

Heil Valley Ranch, July 9, 2022–with Stephen Chang

Our Saturday walk at Heil Valley Ranch consisted of a good crew of seven. The Cal Wood fire torched the area 2 years ago, killing much of the Ponderosa canopy in the area. Because of this, the vegetation that is coming back is quite weedy, consisting mostly of common mullein and musk thistle. This has led to an explosive growth of some grasshopper and butterfly groups in the valley.

Mourning Dove. Photo by Jamie Simo.

As for the birds, we either heard or saw a total of twenty-seven species, the most abundant of which were Mourning Doves, Lesser Goldfinches, and Lazuli Buntings. Views towards the canyon walls to the east were initially difficult due to the lighting in the morning, but we were able to identify many birds by call or song. We talked about the Western Tanager’s song being like “a robin with a sore throat.” Additionally, after hearing Rock Wrens sing for almost an hour up the hill without good looks, we were finally rewarded when one flew in close and perched on a nearby rock (fittingly).

Rock Wren. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Because of the heat forecasted for the day, we did a short loop around the Lichen Loop trail and called it a little bit early. It was both eerie and hard to see the destruction caused by such a high-intensity fire, but there are still some birds who have taken advantage of the situation and are thriving at Heil Ranch.

Thanks to all those who came!

27 Species observed

3          Wild Turkey

8          Mourning Dove

3          Broad-tailed Hummingbird

2          Northern Flicker

3          Western Wood-Pewee

1          Cordilleran Flycatcher

1          Western Kingbird

1          Warbling Vireo

1          Blue Jay

1          Black-billed Magpie

1          Common Raven

1          Violet-green Swallow

1          White-breasted Nuthatch

5          Rock Wren

1          House Wren

1          American Robin

3          Red Crossbill

3          Pine Siskin

10        Lesser Goldfinch

6          American Goldfinch

3          Spotted Towhee

1          Yellow-breasted Chat

2          Western Meadowlark

1          Western/Eastern Meadowlark

1          Western Tanager

1          Black-headed Grosbeak

4          Blue Grosbeak

10        Lazuli Bunting

Beaver Ranch, August 6 – with Chuck Aid

Beaver Ranch is a multi-use, 450-acre park operated and managed by a local non-profit, Beaver Ranch Community, in agreement with Jeffco Open Space.  The Front Range Birding Company has been leading bird walks there now for three years, and when birding seems slow elsewhere it continues to deliver a good variety of birds.  This is despite all the falderol that can go on there on a Saturday morning – cabin rentals, horseback riding, a disc golf course, multiple ziplines, and occasional weddings.

As usual this past Saturday it was hard for us to leave the parking lot because of the slew of initial birds that we had to take note of and try to identify, which is a particularly challenging task this time of year with so many doofy looking youngsters adding their variety of calls to the mix.  To begin with we had three species of swallows: Tree, Violet-green, and Barn.  Trees and Violet-greens can generally be separated from the other swallows by their bright, white breasts (though immature Violet-greens can be a bit dull looking).  The main features to look for in separating Trees and Violet-greens from each other are that the dark hood on Trees comes below the eye while on Violet-greens it ends above the eye, and the Violet-greens have notable white sides to their rumps.  One additional attribute to become aware of is that Violet-greens are shorter-tailed, and when looking at perched birds their wingtips project well beyond the tail.  Barn Swallow adults can be easily identified because of their deeply forked tail.  However, juveniles, though-long-tailed, lack the obvious longer forked tail.  Other features to look for are the rusty forehead and throat.

Also, while still in the parking lot, we were treated to a juvenile Red-naped Sapsucker which, though it lacked having any red, did show the characteristic sapsucker white wing patch which on a perched bird appears as a long vertical white bar.  Then, there was a family of Red-tailed Hawks – an adult with two shrill begging juveniles.  We noted that while the adult had the characteristic “red” tail and the tails of the juvies were paler and more obviously multi-banded, they all three had the diagnostic dark patagium – the leading edge of the wing.  And then, there was a beautiful female Western Tanager and a bunch of other cool birds, but we finally got ourselves out of the parking lot and checked out a Yellow Warbler and some Lincoln’s Sparrows in the willows along Casto Creek.  A bull moose had been reported in that area, but we regretfully didn’t become acquainted.

The real highlight of the day came in the form of a slew of Virginia’s Warblers.  Virginia’s are one of our six regularly occurring breeding warblers found in the foothills west of Denver.  The other five are MacGillivray’s, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s, and Common Yellowthroat.  Virginia’s spend their winters in southwest Mexico and then migrate north to breed on the mesas and in the canyons of the semi-arid Southwest.  Locally, they prefer the dry oak scrub and mountain mahogany of our foothills where they nest on the ground raising on average 3-5 fledglings.  However, once these juveniles exhibit enough self-reliance, then it is time for what is known as post-breeding dispersal to find new foraging resources, which can then be a preliminary step towards fall migration.  This is what we witnessed on Saturday.  I believe that we only saw 2-3 adult Virginia’s and that the rest were youngsters, and it was interesting to see them utilizing willow-alder riparian habitat that was thick with cow parsnips, which in turn were presumably thick with little insects – just what insectivores need.  Much fun!

Good birding!  Chuck

Beaver Ranch, Aug 6, 2022
30 species

Broad-tailed Hummingbird  9
Turkey Vulture  5
Red-tailed Hawk  3
Red-naped Sapsucker  1
Downy Woodpecker  1
Hairy Woodpecker (Rocky Mts.)  1
Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)  4
Western Wood-Pewee  4
Cordilleran Flycatcher  1
Steller’s Jay  2
Mountain Chickadee  19
Tree Swallow  11
Violet-green Swallow  5
Barn Swallow  4
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  3
Red-breasted Nuthatch  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  4
Pygmy Nuthatch  3
House Wren  2
Mountain Bluebird  1
American Robin  2
Red Crossbill  2
Pine Siskin  9
Chipping Sparrow  1
Lincoln’s Sparrow  5
Red-winged Blackbird  4
Virginia’s Warbler  7
Yellow Warbler  1
Western Tanager  2
Black-headed Grosbeak  1

Walker Ranch, July 11, 2022–with Sarah Spotten

A hot, sunny morning awaited us at Walker Ranch for our June 11, 2022 second Saturday bird outing with Front Range Birding Company Boulder. Walker Ranch is a Boulder County Open Space property located in the foothills at about 7,300’ elevation. The Meyers Homestead Trail follows Meyers Gulch, a drainage that feeds into South Boulder Creek, as it moves through a landscape dominated by open Ponderosa Pine forest. On the day of our outing, everything was verdant with late-spring growth, spurred on by recent snowfall and rain, and a few wildflowers and their attendant butterflies brought a pop of color to the landscape.

Female Lesser Goldfinch. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Quite a few birds were already in breeding mode, with several species singing and a few species visiting nests. We observed Mountain Chickadees and Western Bluebirds visiting nest boxes, a female Lesser Goldfinch busily constructing her nest in the top of a small conifer, and a Western Wood-Pewee building a nest in a low-hanging branch right over the trail.

Speaking of the nest-building Western Wood-Pewee, we had an interesting debate in the field about whether this bird was in fact a Western Wood-Pewee (in genus Contopus), or one of the very similar small flycatchers in genus Empidonax. One feature this bird showed that was confounding us was a partial white eyering, just a spot behind the eye, which recalled Empidonax flycatchers with less-distinct eyerings like Willow Flycatcher, and the smaller Hammond’s Flycatcher. Wood-pewees usually do not show any eyering at all. But as with field identification in general, it’s best not to rely on any one field mark in order to make a ID – one should evaluate as many lines of evidence as possible and consider which of the possible IDs is best supported by the evidence. This turns out to be very important for visually identifying North American flycatchers, many of which can have overlapping physical features and can be very difficult to ID to species by sight, even in the hand (we talked in the field about how sound is actually the best way to identify North American flycatchers…but our flycatcher in question was silent as it went about its nest-building work).

Rather than plumage features, the structure of our flycatcher was more helpful. Our flycatcher was long and lanky like a wood-pewee, with a deeply notched tail, long undertail coverts and long primary projection/long wings ending about halfway down the length of the tail when folded. It showed a peaked crown most of the time we watched it. We found it building a nest in a habitat where one is less likely to find Willow and Hammond’s Flycatcher breeding and more likely to find Western Wood-Pewee breeding in Colorado: open Ponderosa Pine forest. One plumage characteristic that was more useful than the partial eyering was the gray centers to the otherwise whitish undertail coverts on our mystery bird – this is a feature of wood-pewees that separates them from genus Empidonax. Only one other member of genus Contopus that sports dark centers on the undertail coverts was likely to be at Meyers Gulch that day: Olive-sided Flycatcher. But Olive-sided Flycatcher has a proportionally larger head, heftier bill and a much more prominent dark “vest” on its front than our bird was showing. So, adding up all of the evidence, Western Wood-Pewee it was.

Western Tanager. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The springtime earbirding at Meyer’s Gulch also did not disappoint. We heard six species of sparrow singing all along the trail: Chipping, Vesper, Song, Lincoln’s, and Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees (towhees are also sparrows). We even caught fleeting looks at some of these sparrows, especially Green-tailed Towhee, although the Lincoln’s Sparrows and Spotted Towhees remained mostly unseen as they sang. Several unseen Warbling Vireos were heard singing along the trail. We even got to hear a few snatches of song from a briefly-seen male Cassin’s Finch, whose song is a simpler, shorter set of warbles than its more common relative, the familiar House Finch, but that still has that finch-y je ne sais quoi. A male Western Tanager was heard singing at one point along the trail, which gave us the opportunity to talk about how their song sounds like a burrier version of the American Robin’s familiar song. Later on, Mr. Tanager graced us with his presence in the top of a tree where we could actually see him and appreciate the pop of color he brought to the springtime landscape as well.

Until next time…let’s go birding!

Sarah

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36 species observed, 107 individuals

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 1

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) 5

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 2

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 2

Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) 1

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 1

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) 1

Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus) 8

Cordilleran Flycatcher (Empidonax occidentalis) 3

Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) 4

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) 5

Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) 3

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 3

Common Raven (Corvus corax) 2

Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli) 4

Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) 1

Violet-green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina) 1

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) 1

Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea) 4

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) 5

Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) 6

Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides) 1

Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi) 1

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 3

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 1

Cassin’s Finch (Haemorhous cassinii) 3

Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) 4

Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) 5

Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) 7

Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus) 6

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 2

Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) 3

Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus) 3

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) 2

Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) 1

Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) 2

View this checklist online at https://ebird.org/checklist/S112711240 

Sawhill Ponds, June 7, 2022–with Patrick Morgan

The bird walk on June 7 was at Sawhill Ponds, a City of Boulder property. The former gravel mines turned wetland ponds offer great year-round birding opportunities. The summer breeding season brings many migrants to the area looking for good nesting spots and plenty of insect prey. With the sun rising earlier this time of year, we met around 7:30 am to get a glimpse of the birds before the heat of the day began. 

We set off heading west along the main path that goes around the perimeter of Sawhill Ponds. The first part of our walk offered brief glimpses at Yellow Warblers, Bullock’s Orioles, and plenty of Red-winged Blackbirds. With the leaves on the trees fully grown out at this point in the season, it can be pretty difficult to spot a bird, even one as bright as a Bullock’s Oriole. Often we would have to rely on our hearing and knowledge of the various bird songs. The Merlin Bird app and its sound recognition feature works very well for one who is not too accustomed to the different songs and can help immensely in learning them.

Snowy Egret. Photo by Patrick Morgan.

After working out some of the different songs, we stopped by one of the first ponds north of the trail, which is officially called Sawhill Pond No. 3. Here we got some good looks at a Snowy Egret, which has been hanging out at this pond for the past couple of weeks. Our patient watching was even rewarded by catching a glimpse of the bird catching a fish! As we stood there watching the Egret, a Great Blue Heron swooped in, along with a pair of Spotted Sandpipers and Killdeer. These shorebirds are some of the few that stick around here for the summer, as most species of shorebird head to the far north to breed. 

Farther down the trail, a pair of Eastern Kingbirds caught our attention. Kingbirds are easy to spot around here, for they often perch out in the open on a mullein stalk or branch, and from there they sally forth to catch a passing insect. As we watched the Kingbirds, a seemingly endless stream of bird song caught our attention. This song belonged to the Gray Catbird, a somewhat non-descriptive looking bird but one with lots of personality. Catbirds belong to the mimid family, a group of birds that are known for their ability to imitate other songs and even man-made noises. We were also able to hear the Catbird’s cat-like “mew” call, which is how they received their common name. 

Eastern Kingbird. Photo by Patrick Morgan.

Near the singing Catbird, we stopped to view the Osprey nesting platform. Osprey have taken advantage of the numerous fish-stocked ponds that have been built over the years and can be found all over Boulder County. This mated pair seemed to be doing especially well, for we spotted two (maybe three) nestlings sitting with their parents. 

We attempted to complete the perimeter loop, but as we neared the cottonwood grove on the western edge of the property, we were met with obnoxious noise from nearby gravel mining as well as hordes of mosquitoes. Make sure to bring plenty of bug spray if you head to this part of the trail! Instead, we headed back the way we came to head back to the trailhead. On the way we were stopped by a singing Common Yellowthroat. These birds can be very difficult to spot, as they like to stay hidden amongst the cattails. While attempting to spot the singing bird, we heard a different call, which was unlike any other bird we had heard. Much to our delight, it was Virginia Rail! These are very secretive birds that rarely leave the cover of the cattails, but some of us were lucky enough to spot this one. Our patient watching was rewarded even further by a glimpse of the singing Yellowthroat.

Sawhill Ponds is a Boulder birding gem that offers great chances to see a multitude of species (over 200 recorded on eBird). If one is willing to rise early on a summer day, brave the hordes of mosquitoes, and the noise from planes and construction, you will be rewarded with some of the best birds Boulder County has to offer.

Taxa 

Canada Goose 

Wood Duck

Mallard

Mourning Dove

Virginia Rail

Killdeer

Spotted Sandpiper

Great Blue Heron

Snowy Egret

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Northern Flicker

Eastern Kingbird

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Barn Swallow

House Wren

Gray Catbird

American Robin

Cedar Waxwing

Song Sparrow

Bullock’s Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Common Yellowthroat

Yellow Warbler

Waterton Canyon, June 4, 2022 with Andrea Cahoon

Waterton Canyon, located south of Littleton near Roxborough Park, is a popular hiking trail that follows a gentle grade up the canyon. The road was originally the bed of the Colorado, South Park and Pacific Railroad, built in 1877 from Denver, through Waterton Canyon to Leadville. The tracks were removed during WWII for scrap metal. The trail changes from a paved road to a dirt road leading to Strontia Springs Dam, located 6.2 miles from the starting point. Denver Water manages the area and the road gives them access to the dam. Bighorn sheep are often seen along the rocky canyon walls. To protect the sheep, no dogs are allowed in the canyon. This is a great birding area with its riparian habitat hosting many migrants at this time of year.

Gray Catbird. Photo by Jamie Simo.

A group of 13 began our walk on a warm, sunny day, well into the 70’s by the time we started. Before we even left the parking area, one of our participants spotted four eagles, most likely Golden Eagles, soaring overhead. Then upon crossing the road to the trailhead, we heard a catbird in the brushy area on the left. Eventually the catbird showed itself before moving on. Not more than a few minutes on the trail and we spotted 13 White Pelicans high in the sky in V formation. They were following the trail, leaving their V formation to take advantage of the thermals rising from the canyon walls. What a sight they were, shining white in the sun, brilliant against the deep blue Colorado sky. As they turned, the black of their wingtips was beautifully displayed. As we continued up the canyon, we noticed them again and again, totally in awe of this beautiful sight!

Golden Eagle. Photo by Jamie Simo.

As we went deeper into the canyon, the trees rose high around us, and we turned off the main trail to a trail leading south toward the South Platte River, lured by the cacophony of birds high in the trees. Many of us opened the Merlin Bird ID app on our phones and used the Sound ID feature. Merlin did an impressive job identifying the Warbling Vireo and the Yellow-breasted Chat that we heard but did not see. Note that this feature on Merlin Bird ID is not 100% accurate, and if it identifies a bird not commonly seen in the area, it is best to see the bird before adding it to your list. We spent quite a bit of time by the river and soon found it was time to turn back. For the short distance we travelled, we saw a lot! Here is the list:

24 Species Observed, 59 Individuals

  1. Common Merganser – 1
  2. American White Pelican – 13
  3. Northern Harrier – 1
  4. Golden Eagle – 4
  5. Mourning Dove – 2
  6. Black-chinned Hummingbird – 1
  7. Broad-tailed Hummingbird – 1
  8. Northern Flicker – 1
  9. Western Wood Pewee – 2
  10. Western Kingbird – 1
  11. Warbling Vireo – 2
  12. Blue Jay – 1
  13. Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay – 3
  14. Barn Swallow – 4
  15. Violet-green Swallow – 6
  16. White-breasted Nuthatch – 1
  17. House Wren – 1
  18. American Robin – 1
  19. Gray Catbird – 1
  20. European Starling – 1
  21. Yellow Warbler – 6
  22. Yellow-breasted Chat – 1
  23. Spotted Towhee – 3
  24. Western Meadowlark – 1

Pella Crossing Open Space, May 14, 2022 – Sarah Spotten

Pella Crossing Open Space encompasses a collection of former gravel-mine ponds to both the east and west of N 75th Street in Hygiene, Colorado. The portion of the open space west of N 75th Street also includes a short stretch of Saint Vrain Creek on its way to Longmont. The water features and riparian habitat attract many interesting bird species at all times of year. We were greeted by a calm and bright spring morning for our May 14, 2022 second Saturday bird outing to the Marlatt Trails on the western portion of Pella Crossing Open Space.

Spring migration and the beginning of the breeding season was already in full swing at Pella Crossing. Many of the northern Front Range resident species were beginning to start their annual breeding rituals, with Red-winged Blackbird males vigorously chasing females, House Finches carrying nesting material, courtship feeding between a pair of Black-capped Chickadees, and a female American Robin already incubating on a nest. Two pairs of Osprey, which migrate here to breed from points south, occupied two separate nest platforms at opposite ends of the western half of Pella Crossing, both females incubating and one of the males continuing to bring nesting material. The Great Blue Heron rookery next to Saint Vrain Creek sounded active, which is to say that we heard Great Blue Herons in that direction, but we could not see birds at nests because the trees were already leafing out.

Male Western Tanager. Photo by Sarah Spotten

The real stars of the day’s show, however, were the summer breeders who winter far to the south of Colorado, and the spring migrants visiting briefly on their way to breeding grounds in points north or in higher elevations. A number of northern Front Range summer-visiting songbirds like House Wrens, Gray Catbirds, Bullock’s Orioles, Yellow Warblers, and four species of swallows (Tree, Barn, Cliff, and Northern Rough-winged) delighted us with their cheerful songs and bright colors. A few species were just passing through, still yet to reach their breeding grounds. Among them, a skulky Lincoln’s Sparrow giving its buzzy call, a flamboyant male Western Tanager, and a handsome male MacGillivray’s Warbler (whose name, the group decided, is a mouthful to say!).

Speaking of warblers, two of the biggest highlights of the day were undoubtedly warblers. First, the aforementioned MacGillivray’s Warbler (say it again with me!), which we stayed on for several minutes as it furtively fed along a stand of Russian Olives until everyone in the group got a definitive look – which is saying something indeed for a small, busy, and camouflaged bird uninterested in showing off! The second fabulous warbler we saw was a female-type Northern Parula, which is an unusual sight in our area, as the bulk of their migration path falls far to the east of Colorado’s eastern border with Kansas. This bird was fairly dull-colored even for a female Northern Parula, and may have been a first-year female hatched last summer, now making her first northward migration.

We had a fun group of birders brimming with enthusiasm on our May 14th outing – I thoroughly enjoyed sharing the morning and the birds with you all. My only regret is that with all the interesting birds popping up all around, I didn’t have enough time to answer all your questions and continue all the conversations! Please drop Front Range Birding Company a line at boulder@frontrangebirding.com if you still have burning questions – we touched on a lot of topics like species concepts, hybrids and intergrades, status and distribution of many bird species, and distinguishing between similar species. One of my favorite birds to share with you (and one which spoke to all of those aforementioned topics) was a male Northern Flicker that showed characteristics of being an intergrade between the western “Red-shafted” form and the eastern “Yellow-shafted” form. The two forms are so visually different that they were once considered separate species. On the Front Range of Colorado, the two forms meet and produce an intergrade zone of Northern Flickers that display a spectrum of plumage traits from both forms. Our particular male flicker was a textbook example of such an intergrade, with a bright red malar stripe (“mustache”) from its red-shafted ancestors, and a red nuchal/nape patch on the back of the head from its yellow-shafted ancestors. These intergrade Northern Flickers remind us to look closely at even the most common birds around us – they can be just as fascinating as the rare birds that show up during migration seasons!

Intergrade male Northern Flicker. Photo by Sarah Spotten

See you next time – let’s go birding!

–Sarah

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36 species observed, 188 individuals

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  8

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  1

Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)  2

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)  1

Double-crested Cormorant (Nannopterum auritum)  10

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)  1

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)  5

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)  5

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)  4

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)  1

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted x Red-shafted) (Colaptes auratus luteus x cafer)  1

Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)  4

Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus)  1

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  3

Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  4

Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)  1

Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)  2

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)  4

Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)  1

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)  4

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  10

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)  4

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  6

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)  2

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  6

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  2

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  3

Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)  1

Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii)  3

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)  40

Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  11

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  25

MacGillivray’s Warbler (Geothlypis tolmiei)  1

Northern Parula (Setophaga americana)  1

Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)  9

Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) 1

View this checklist online at 

https://ebird.org/checklist/S110137852

Golden Ponds, April 9, 2022–with Jamie Simo

Golden Ponds in Longmont, Colorado is an amazing place in the spring and the weather on Saturday April 9th was perfect for a bird walk. From the fishing pier at the pond closest to the parking lot, we were treated to great views of American White Pelican and Double-crested Cormorant (so-named for the 2 feather plumes adults sport in breeding season).

As we continued along parallel to the railroad track, amongst the symphony of singing birds we were able to pick out the call of the Say’s Phoebe, one of our most visible and colorful flycatchers and another spring migrant. After a moment, the bird happily obliged us by landing in plain view on a power line and was followed by its likely mate, which settled down near it.

Nesting Great Blue Herons. Photo by Mark Evenson.

One of the highlights of the trip was the view of the beginnings of a new heronry in the trees along St. Vrain Creek. Great Blue Herons, our largest heron, are colonial nesters that build their stick nests high in the tree canopy. While the heronry at Golden Ponds is still small at 2 visible nests, heronries can include dozens or even hundreds of nests.

Not only the herons, but other species were also clearly nesting or getting ready to nest. We came upon a Cooper’s Hawk along the river that sat and posed for us for quite awhile. Cooper’s Hawks have nested regularly along St. Vrain Creek in that same stretch and, while we didn’t see any hawks in it, we did sight a nest made mostly of sticks (as opposed to leaves like a squirrel nest) that could’ve been its nest for the season.

The climax of the trip was definitely the nesting Great Horned Owl who had at least 2 owlets. Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesting species due to needing to be ready to hunt by the time other species have their babies. Young owls will stay near their parents until about October when the adults are ready again to court and breed again.

Great Horned Owl with owlet. Photo by Chris Friedman.

In all, we saw or heard 33 species, a great start to my favorite season!

Golden Ponds Park and Nature Area
Apr 09, 2022

27 Canada Goose
100 Northern Shoveler
4 Gadwall
14 Mallard
7 Ring-necked Duck
1 Bufflehead
2 Eurasian Collared-Dove
8 Double-crested Cormorant
2 American White Pelican
6 Great Blue Heron
3 Turkey Vulture
2 Osprey
1 Cooper’s Hawk
1 Bald Eagle
1 Red-tailed Hawk
1 Great Horned Owl — At least two babies
3 Downy Woodpecker
5 Northern Flicker
2 Say’s Phoebe
8 Blue Jay
2 American Crow
5 Black-capped Chickadee
1 Tree Swallow
4 White-breasted Nuthatch
11 European Starling
7 American Robin
6 House Sparrow
11 House Finch
7 American Goldfinch
2 White-crowned Sparrow
6 Song Sparrow
22 Red-winged Blackbird
9 Common Grackle

Sandstone Ranch, February 12th–with Aron Smolley

Heavy snowfall on Friday evening made for an interesting bird walk on Saturday morning at Sandstone Ranch. The weather was sunny, clear and still, although very chilly, and the birds were active and busy. Starting down the hill from the parking lot, we were graced with the spectacle of hundreds if not thousands of Canada geese flying overhead in the warm morning glow. Their collective honking was so loud we were shouting over them!

As we made our way past the sandstone cliffs, white-crowned sparrows and dark-eyed juncos flitted between the low shrubs. The first bird we stopped for was a female hairy woodpecker, busily foraging up the side of a snag, completely oblivious to our group watching her. Everyone was able to get good views through the spotting scope, and it led to an excellent conversation about the differences between hairy and downy woodpeckers, and bird identification in general.

Female American Kestrel. Photo by Jamie Simo.

When we got to the bottom of the hill, a solitary northern flicker flew overhead, calling, and as we watched it fly by we also spotted a pair of American kestrels, and got excellent views that helped demonstrate the differences between the male and female. There were no shortage of red-tailed hawks or bald eagles, and we got excellent views of several different color morphs of red-tails, and of eagles in every stage of life, including 2 adults next to their nest. A northern harrier whooshed past us and made several passes over the wetland, scattering mallards and causing a ruckus. We stopped to watch the harrier cruising around and also put the scope on a majestic great blue heron hanging out on a floating log.

Male American Kestrel. Photo by Jamie Simo.

This stop was very well timed, because 2 hooded mergansers that had been submerged and unnoticed suddenly popped up. We spent most of the rest of the walk watching the mergansers, heron, and harrier, and even had a common merganser flyover briefly. The last birds of the walk were a small group of house finches, which presented us with an excellent opportunity to simply enjoy the more common species and their subtle beauty. Overall, this was a very pleasant walk with great company and great conversation. Looking forward to the next one!

BIRD LIST:

Canada Goose 2000, Am Kestrel 3, hairy woodpecker 1, northern flicker 1, RT hawk- 6, bald eagle 9, canvasback 2, mallard 30, dark eyed junco 10, white crowned sparrow 4, northern harrier 1, great blue heron 2, hooded merganser 2, common merganser 1, house finch 4

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Bird Count
Canada Goose 2000
Am Kestrel3
hairy woodpecker 1, 1
northern flicker 1, 1
RT hawk- 6, 6
bald eagle 9, 9
canvasback 2, 2
mallard 30, 30
dark eyed junco10
white crowned sparrow 4
northern harrier 1
great blue heron2
caption goes here

Milavec Reservoir, January 8th–with Jamie Simo

Immature Bald Eagle in flight. Photo by Jamie Simo

Hybrid Greater White-fronted Goose x Cackling Goose. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Milavec Reservoir in Frederick, Colorado is always a good place to see ducks and geese in the winter. I like to go at least once every year to see what I can see. This past Saturday was cold and windy and because of that a lot of the reservoir was frozen, but just enough remained open that it drew some interesting waterfowl and even some hungry raptors,

Hybrid Snow Goose x Cackling/Canada Goose. Photo by Jamie Simo.

including 4 Bald Eagles and a Northern Harrier.

Hiding among the masses of Canada and Cackling Geese were a Greater White-fronted Goose and a couple of interesting hybrids. One of these hybrids was clearly a cross between a Greater White-fronted Goose and probably a Cackling Goose going by the bright orange beak and feet (indicative of a Greater White-fronted Goose) and the dark  head and neck with a paler cheek patch (indicative of either a Canada or Cackling Goose). It’s small size hints that the other parent was probably a Cackling Goose rather than a Canada Goose.

The other hybrid was a lot harder to pin down to parentage. The white, blotchy head points to either a Snow Goose or a Ross’s Goose parent with the blocky head shape being more of a Snow Goose than Ross’s Goose trait. The dark bill and dark body indicates the other parent was either a Cackling or a Canada Goose.

We also had some great diving ducks, including good looks at both male and female Canvasbacks. The “ski slope” head shape of the Canvasback is distinctive and makes it unique from our other duck species. The Canvasback is named for the male’s white body, which resembles the color of unpainted canvas. The highlight for me was the lone Red-breasted Merganser that helpfully hung out next to a male Common Merganser to give a good indication of its slightly smaller size. This merganser had dark patches on the face, which I suspect would’ve been green feathers coming in if we’d been able to get closer to it. Immature male Red-breasted Mergansers resemble females with their brown heads and grey bodies. Mature males have green heads.

Red-breasted Merganser. Photo by Jamie Simo.

If you get a chance, check out Milavec this winter. I doubt you’ll be disappointed whatever you end up seeing!

Milavec Reservoir

20 taxa

Greater White-fronted Goose 1
Greater White-fronted x Cackling Goose (hybrid) 1
Snow x Canada Goose (hybrid) 1
Cackling/Canada Goose 2500
Northern Shoveler 16
Mallard 27
Canvasback 19
Lesser Scaup 1
Common Goldeneye 23
Common Merganser 21
Red-breasted Merganser 1
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 5
Ring-billed Gull 2
Northern Harrier 1
Bald Eagle 4
Northern Flicker 1
Blue Jay 1
American Crow 6
Black-capped Chickadee 1
House Finch 7

White Rocks Trail, December 11th–with Patrick Morgan

The cold front that moved in on Thursday did not disappoint, as the morning of the 11th of December proved to be a frigid one. The thermometer was at 28° at 8:00 a.m. and a cold breeze was blowing from the west. 8 birders arrived at Teller Farm bright and early, ready to meet the birds that find a winter home in the White Rocks area. 

Female Belted Kingfisher. Photo by Patrick Morgan.

From the Teller Farm parking lot, we headed north across Valmont Road towards White Rocks. The first portion of the trail followed the path of Dry Creek. The thickets of willows and cottonwoods that grow along the creek cut a meandering path through agricultural fields. The first memorable bird of the walk was a Red-tailed Hawk perched on the edge of the field north of the creek. The hawk gave us some good looks through the scope and then took off across the field. While the hawk was perched, a female Belted Kingfisher flew to a perching spot above the creek. As she sat there, a mixed flock of American Goldfinches and sparrows moved through the willows. We could barely catch a glimpse of them as they flew about before descending deeper into the thicket, but their calls alerted us to their continued presence. 

When I find riparian corridors such as this, I like to reflect on what this area looks like from a bird’s perspective. To us, the dirt path that we walk down is what we perceive this area to be. We need clear, open land to walk through, for our size and shape limits our movement through dense brush. For small passerines like the Song Sparrow or American Goldfinch, these densely vegetated creeks provide much needed shelter in an otherwise inhospitable environment. To them, the vast open spaces that we desire are full of many dangers. The lack of cover exposes them to predators and the harsh elements, along with sparse foraging opportunities to be found. To our smaller avian friends, these riparian corridors are their trails through a world filled with many dangers. 

While some bird species prefer these thickets, others find their domain in the vast open sky. As we continued to head north towards the ponds, we spied two of these lords of the air. The mated Bald Eagle pair that has nested in this area were perched far off to the west of the ponds. As we admired them from a distance, they suddenly took off from their perch, seemingly dancing through the air as they flew eastwards towards another perching spot even closer to the trail. We were able to walk very close to one of them, standing on the bridge right underneath the cottonwood where it was perched. They permitted our presence for a good while, and then with a lordly glance down at us that almost seemed to remind us that this was their domain, they took off to the sky. 

After the eagle, the cold seemed to be getting to the group and we were ready to turn around. Before we did that, we walked a little farther down the trail to a point where it started to rise up a hill. This section is made up of shortgrass prairie habitat, with a couple of acres of prairie dog town to the northwest of the trail. Sitting on the ground amongst the prairie dogs was a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk, a habit that is characteristic of this largest of North American hawk species. I had seen this particular bird multiple times in this prairie dog town, a sign that this area and its rodent populations are important for many different raptor species.

Adult Bald Eagle. Photo by Patrick Morgan.

While we admired the hawk and a flock of Western Meadowlarks perched high in a willow, a flash of black and white flew across the landscape. I followed it to where it perched atop some bushes, and from there we got our first looks at a Northern Shrike. This predatory songbird winters in Boulder County and it was a first for many on our walk. We were able to get some brief looks at them through the scope, but these birds seem to be quite energetic and rarely sat still for more than a minute.  We chased them through our optics from perch to perch until they flew out of sight, off to find some songbird or rodent prey. Their habit of storing their food for later by impaling them on thorns and barbed wire has earned them the gruesome nickname of “butcherbirds.” 

After the Shrike took off, we spotted another unique bird that winters in this area. Far off to the west of the trail, a Harlan’s Hawk was perched high up in a cottonwood. The Harlan’s is a subspecies of the Red-tailed Hawk and this particular bird has spotted here fairly frequently over the past month. They nest in central Alaska and then make their way down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains to winter on the central Great Plains. They make up a small percentage of the greater Red-tailed Hawk species and can be difficult to identify, with dark, intermediate, and light morphs of their own, along with interbreeding with other subspecies of Red-tailed Hawks. 

Even though we had already seen some of our target species, we were not done with more wildlife sightings. As we scanned across the prairie dog town, we became aware of their calls becoming more agitated. Sure enough, the culprit was the ubiquitous prairie wolf, also known as the coyote. It appeared to be attempting to make its way through the town, with occasional glances back at us. Its path was made a little difficult, however, by a Northern Harrier that didn’t take too kindly to its presence. The Harrier dive-bombed the coyote a few times before finally letting it pass through. Once the coyote moved on and the Harrier had enough, we decided we had had enough of the cold as well and started walking back. 

The walk back brought us glimpses at the more common species of this area. A Great Blue Heron flew overhead, while a mixed flock of Canada and Cackling Geese attempted to find comfort on the frozen pond. It was also filled with each of us recounting our favorite experiences of the day and sharing what we had learned. The camaraderie that develops on bird walks is one of my favorite things about birding in groups. Everyone has something insightful to share and I usually walk away learning something new, from both novice and expert alike. It is especially enjoyable to bird together in the winter months, when the cold weather and dark days can make life seem a little tougher. With a group of enthusiastic birders and the birds to help us through the cold, brighter days don’t seem that far away.