Our merry group of 27 birders ventured into Hudson Gardens and along the South Platter River on a brisk, beautiful day with plenty of sun. We spotted 25 species of birds during our 3-hour walk covering just under 2 miles.
We began by walking clockwise through Hudson Gardens, looking and listening for birds in the trees, on the ground, in the sky, and everywhere in between. American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds were both observed singing out in the open, giving us a great opportunity to associate the song with the bird.
Out along the South Platte trail, we saw many of the waterbirds we’d anticipate seeing this time of year such as Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal and Gadwall.
One exciting observation was a Northern Harrier behaving very un-Harrierlike. These medium-sized raptors with long tails and a distinctive white rump patch are most often seen flying low over grasslands or marshes. This behavior is explained by their habit of not only looking for its prey, but listening as well. The Northern Harrier we observed was soaring high in the sky, a behavior we typically expect from other raptors such as the Red-tailed Hawk. What a treat to see a bird exhibiting an unexpected behavior!
Female Northern Harrier @ Bill Schmoker
Another big highlight was a pair of nest-building Bushtits. These tiny gray birds are often seen in marauding flocks that descend upon your suet feeder and then disappear, often for weeks at a time. This time of year, they are paired up to nest and often start earlier than many other perching birds.
Bushtit @ Bill Schmoker
As spring migration continues, we will say goodbye to many species of waterbirds, and hello to some of our summer favorites such as hummingbirds, swallows, and Bullock’s Orioles. Be sure to sign up early for the next walk on April 28th, 2018 by visiting the Hudson Garden’s website.
To begin with, the weather was far milder than anticipated, the sun broke through the scattered clouds, and we ended up tallying 42 species of birds. So, it was certainly a fantastic morning for the ten of us that showed up to greet the day and the birds.
Harriman Lake continues to be a very nice local hot spot for wintering and migratory waterfowl. Some of these were not apparent on Saturday. We saw no Western Grebes, no geese other than Canada, or any of the three teal species, and there were no American Wigeons, Canvasbacks, Redheads, or any of the three merganser species. However, what we did see was pretty great! To begin with we had three members of the Aythya genus: Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, and the more uncommon Greater Scaup. In one of the early field books for Colorado birders Harold Holt and James Lane (first published, I believe, in 1987), instead of using terms such as “abundant” and “rare,” used expressions like “Hard to miss” or “May see.” For Greater Scaup they said, “Lucky to find,” and we certainly counted ourselves as “lucky.”
We had high numbers for Buffleheads (90) and Ruddy Ducks (45), earning us on eBird what I’ve come to call “the dreaded black box.” If you use the eBird app to enter your bird lists you may know whereof I speak. The black box appears whenever you record a species that’s unanticipated for your location, or if you enter a number in excess of what eBird thinks is reasonable for your location. eBird then asks that you justify your sighting in some way, e.g. a good written description or a photograph of what you saw. Justifying these dramatic changes in numbers can be particularly tricky during migration when good sized flocks can be present one day and gone the next.
A couple of other great sightings included fifteen Pied-billed Grebes and an Eared Grebe. The Pied-bills seem to have a real affinity for Harriman, possibly based on the apparently abundant crayfish population, and they can be seen here year-round. We often see the Pied-bills with full beaks trying to decide whether to eat a crayfish head first or tail first. In contrast, the window for seeing Eared Grebes in Colorado in the spring is rather narrow (roughly late March through late May), so this was another lucky find.
We did pretty well with the raptors, even though we came away without having seen a Red-tailed Hawk. However, a Northern Harrier, two Coopers Hawks, and, what was a first of the season bird for all of us, a Swainson’s Hawk made up for the Red-tail deficiency.
Additional highlights included a single Wilson’s Snipe, a beautiful male Audubon’s Warbler in full regalia, a small flock of migratory Lincoln’s Sparrows sticking to the lowlands for the time being, but heading up to breed in the montane willows eventually, and a large number of Tree Swallows coursing back and forth over the lake and grabbing insects from the water’s surface. By the way, the Eared Grebe seemed to be taking advantage of this same food resource, whatever it was.
Finally, we wrapped up our morning with a Great Horned Owl mom sitting in her nest with two fuzzy nestlings. All in all, another great morning bird-watching.
Hope to see you on another walk soon or at the FRBC open house on May 12 (we’re offering four different bird walks that morning)!
The Snowman Stampede is a 5K, 10K, and half marathon race held every February in Littleton, and this year it was held on the day of our bird walk at Hudson Gardens. Fortunately, we were mostly able to do the necessary dodging when required, and were not significantly impacted by the hundreds of runners.
Here at the end of February we are on the cusp of so many interesting bird activities. First, and foremost it appears that the same pair of Red-tailed Hawks that were around last breeding season have returned to the area. These guys tend to hang out just across the river from Hudson Gardens, and are remarkable because while one is our standard light-morph western Red-tail, the other is an intermediate, or rufous-morph, western Red-tail. The variety of plumages that Red-tailed Hawks exhibit is truly incredible. Without going into too much detail, just know that there are 12 sub-species of Red-tails each tending to have either a dark or light morph, with some intermediate colored birds, and then you have the different plumages exhibited by juveniles versus adults. It can be quite the smorgasbord for us birders, as well as quite confusing!
We are also commencing waterfowl spring migration which peaks towards the end of March (to be followed shortly thereafter in mid-April by the peak of shorebird migration). This is all by way of saying that we saw a good variety of geese and ducks (13 species). These guys are all in wonderful breeding plumage right now, and it’s a great show!
Other highlights included a few species that tend to be around throughout the winter, but one can never be guaranteed of seeing them: Killdeer, Bushtit, Brown Creeper, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This last is one of North America’s smallest songbirds wintering in a variety of habitats, and then here in Colorado breeding up in the Spruce-Fir Forest.
Finally, one other bird that can be here illusively in the winter is the Mountain Bluebird. We were fortunate to get several good looks at this outstanding fellow.
Thanks to those of you who braved the Snowman Stampede and the chilling winds that were with us almost all morning. And thanks to David Chernack for his excellent photos!
Beautiful blue skies made for excellent birding this past Saturday morning along the South Platte River at Hudson Gardens. A wide range of birds were seen, from a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet to an enormous juvenile Bald Eagle and everything in between!
Our walk largely consisted of hugging the South Platte, keenly eyeing the only non-frozen water in the vicinity for large numbers of waterbirds. Present in huge numbers were Cackling geese, which actually vastly outnumbered their more well-known relatives, the Canada geese. Amongst the large number of Cackling and Canada geese was one “gray goose” from the genus Anser, which includes the Ross’s geese and Snow geese. Those species are uncommon but regular winter visitors to the greater Denver area, and associate with Cackling and Canada geese while here; in their breeding grounds, they also hybridize with them, creating a broad and confusing spectrum of hybrids which can be difficult to identify. Our mystery goose gave our group the impression of a Canada X Ross’s goose hybrid, but it flew off with several Cackling geese before we could make the final call. Shame!
Also present along the river were Denver’s usual cast of winter characters, including Ring-necked Ducks, Mallards, Green-winged Teals, Gadwalls, and Hooded Mergansers. Not seen on our previous excursion to Hudson Gardens, two female Common Mergansers were present along our route, with one individual which was preening gave us excellent scope views. A mated pair of Common Goldeneyes were also found amongst the other ducks, and showed off their bright breeding plumage. A handful of Buffleheads energetically foraged as we advanced along the river, diving below the surface and quickly resurfacing.
Our group found a surprising diversity of landbirds along our route as well. A unique surprise was seeing a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a tiny bird filled with energy. Interestingly, the bird was foraging alongside some sparrows and Brown Creepers. A distinctly not tiny bird which we spotted perched atop a telephone pole was an impressive immature Bald Eagle; the bird was just beginning to show off its distinctive white head plumage. Also seen were two cantankerous Belted Kingfishers, a pair of Northern Flickers, and a single Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Check out the full list of species below or on eBird here!
Despite some biting wind and cold on Saturday morning, fourteen brave birders embarked out to South Platte Reservoir to look for waterfowl and other winter birds on our first monthly bird walk of 2018. We racked up a grand total of 35 species in just under three hours in the field, including two rare birds for Colorado: a Horned Grebe and a Yellow-billed Loon.
Our walk took place in two segments: first, we surveyed the large South Platte Reservoir for waterbirds — including the Yellow-billed Loon — and second, we followed the South Platte River towards the Chatfield dam and counted waterfowl and songbirds. Due to our surveying of two distinct types of habitat on our trip, the waterbird biodiversity we observed was notably high: nineteen of the species we saw were waterbirds or waterfowl of some sort. These ranged from a large Canvasback on the reservoir to a raft of tiny Buffleheads along the river to a small group of dazzling Wood Ducks below the Chatfield dam.
The most numerous species spotted along our route were, as usual, Canada Geese — along with their close relatives, Cackling Geese. Though visibly very similar, the two species can be told apart by their calls and size, with the Cackling Goose being far more compact than its Canadian cousin. Also in abundance were Mallards and Buffleheads, with 44 and 41 individuals of each species seen respectively. Mallards and Buffleheads displayed the two principal duck feeding behaviors: dabbling and diving. While the Mallards skimmed the water’s surface and dipped their fronts underwater for aquatic plants, the Buffleheads dove towards the river bottom to forage for small aquatic crustaceans and other prey items.
One of the Buffleheads’ cousins in the genus Bucephala, the Common Goldeneye, was another delight to see along our route. The Goldeneyes, like many of the other ducks observed foraging along the river, are only in Colorado as winter visitors — they breed across Canada on wooded lakeshores — but set themselves apart as cavity nesters; Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers were some other ducks we spotted which will nest in natural cavities or abandoned woodpecker nests come springtime. Four members from genus Aythya, which includes several species of diving duck worldwide, were on display as well: the Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, and Canvasback were all visible. Many of the males showed off their bright breeding plumage, ready to perform elaborate courtship displays to impress females of their species. However, both of the grebe species we saw — the Pied-billed and Horned grebes — donned their drab non-breeding plumage.
While all of our waterfowl sightings were exciting, the most anticipated highlight of the morning was a rarity to Colorado: a Yellow-billed Loon (Gaviaadamsii). The loon was observed on the far northern side of the South Platte Reservoir, diving intermittently to forage. This magnificent species has only been observed in Colorado a handful of times; it can be more reliably observed on the Arctic coast where it breeds during spring and summer.
Yellow-billed Loons are poorly understood birds: while five distinct breeding groups are recognized in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, their diet and the exact size of their global population are not concretely known. (Estimates place it at around 10,000 individuals, with around 4,000 of those breeding in northern Alaska.) The species is rated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Near Threatened, and “it is suspected to be undergoing a moderately rapid population decline owing to unsustainable subsistence harvest and almost qualifies for listing as threatened” according to the IUCN’s “Red List”; the potential expansion of Arctic drilling on their breeding grounds, oil spills, and climate change are considered to be other threats to the loon. Needless to say, our group was extremely lucky to observe such a mysterious bird visitor so far inland. For more information about the Yellow-billed Loon and its conservation, visit the National Audubon Society’s online field guide entry about this fantastic species.
Though the waterfowl both rare and common stole the show, we also observed a good number of songbirds, raptors, and other birds along our way. Four Red-tailed hawks, an American kestrel, and a passing adult Bald Eagle rounded out our raptor tallies, while songbirds including song sparrows, brown creepers, and a single American tree sparrow were also a treat to see.
Check out even more photos of this morning’s birds as well as our full species list in the gallery below!
The weather was surprisingly mild for early December, and though we started out with our coats on it was not long before several of us were down to shirtsleeves. November can be a good time to start seeing a wide variety of wintering geese and ducks, and while we had good luck getting three species of geese, Snow, Cackling, and Canada, we only came away with three species of ducks which is below what one might expect this time of year. The high number of Mallards, almost 300, was most impressive.
We managed to do well with the raptors. We saw four Red-tails, and even though they were all our usual light plumaged western morph, there was good variety in their appearance. There was a juvenile with a banded tail, and an adult with a “red” tail; some had more white on the scapulars, and others had less; some had a more obvious belly-band, others less so; and so it went. One thing to start looking for in your Red-tails is whether they have a dark chin and throat (our western birds), or whether they have a white chin and throat (Eastern birds). Living where we do at the foot of the Rockies – where East meets West – we are in a region where we find eastern and western forms of many species.
As for our other raptors we had a distant, silhouetted view of a Prairie Falcon perched high on a pole – a bit more slender than a Buteo (the genus of soaring hawks), with a longer tail, and overall rather pale looking. We had a great look at a Northern Harrier cruising low over the fields and wetlands – a slender bird with a long, banded tail, and long wings raised in a dihedral; and the white rump is always obvious. And then we had another falcon, an American Kestrel, with beautiful rufous barring on her back.
A few other highlights were provided by a good number of American Tree Sparrows, and then we had three races of Dark-eyed Juncos: Slate-colored, Oregon, and Pink-sided. There are six races that occur around here in the winter, and it can be fun (and challenging) to sort them out. At one time, they were considered to all be distinct species, but for now they have been lumped together as Dark-eyed Juncos.
We hope to see you on another walk soon!
Chuck and David
Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, Dec 2, 2017
It was a chilly one out on Saturday morning, but the birds were out and a pleasant time was had birding at Hudson Gardens! We observed a respectable total of 24 species (see the full list below or on eBird here), including some great wintering waterfowl and a wonderful winter surprise: a Northern Shrike.
Eight of the species observed — largely on the South Platte River or on small ponds nearby — were a mixture of geese, ducks, and other waterfowl. The most numerous birds observed were Canada Geese and their close cousins, Cackling Geese; both are members of the genus Branta. Though visibly very similar, the two species can be told apart by their calls (the cackling goose makes a slightly higher “honk” than the Canada goose) and by the length of their necks, with the cackling goose having a more compact neck than its Canadian relative.
Also in abundance were Mallards, with precisely 69 seen over the course of the trip; Mallards are included in the genus Anas, which encompasses some 31 species of dabbling ducks worldwide. Another member of the genus observed on the South Platte this morning were a duo of male Green-winged Teals. Several Gadwalls and American Wigeons — common winter dabbling ducks — were also observed foraging alongside the Mallards and teals.
One of our diving ducks, the Bufflehead, was also out on the river, with both darker immature individuals and females and bright white mature males on display. No sign of the Buffleheads’ relatives in the genus Bucephala, the Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes, on this trip however. Also putting some bright white breeding plumage on display were Hooded Mergansers, who were diving to forage alongside a large group of Gadwalls. Though these wonderful waterfowl species were a delight to see, notably missing were any species from genus Aythya: the Greater and Lesser Scaups, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, and Canvasback.
One great surprise we had this morning was a bird with a high fearsomeness-to-size ratio: a Northern Shrike! Shrikes are technically songbirds; however, they hunt for prey such as lizards and small rodents just like raptors. Since they are not technically raptors and don’t have large talons at their disposal, shrikes will attack and carry prey with their specially adapted hooked bills; in order to kill and consume their prey, they will impale their unfortunate catch on spikes, such as the thorns on a honeylocust tree on the barbs of a barbed wire. As their name suggests, these shrikes breed spruce forests in Alaska and the northern Canadian provinces; they spend their winters from British Columbia to Massachusetts. Getting to see one on our walk was a real treat.
Aside from waterbirds and the shrike, the normal cast of characters was present during our walk: Northern flickers, a Killdeer, American Robins, Red-tailed hawks, Ring-billed Gulls, and a single female American kestrel were all spotted.
Finally, we had good numbers of feeder birds close to the end of our trip, including Downy Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, House Finches, American goldfinches, Dark-eyed Juncos, and plenty of Black-capped Chickadees.
This trip was emblematic of the joys of Colorado winter birding: even in a location with a relatively high level of habitat disturbance and modification by humans, a wonderful suite of birds was present and could be seen fairly easily. As a recent transplant to Colorado from New England, I’m constantly impressed with the ease and facility with which one can observe many wonderful wild species, even in Denver’s back doorstep. All the more reason to get out those binoculars and check out our native avian fauna this winter! Check out even more photos of this morning’s birds in the gallery below.
Harriman Lake once again delivered, as we spent a beautiful fall morning tallying 34 species (see list below). Everyone enjoyed great looks at eleven species of ducks, all of whom, except for the Shovelers are really showing their glorious breeding plumage.
We saw three species of ducks from the genus Aythya, Redhead, Ringed-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup. These ducks are all divers and for the most part are only present in Colorado during the winter. We missed on two other species of Aythyas – Canvasback and Greater Scaup – but they are around and their numbers should increase as we get further into winter. Another fun genus of wintering ducks is the Bucephala (from ancient Greek “ox-head”) which includes Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Bufflehead. We had plenty of Buffleheads on Wednesday, but no Goldeneyes yet.
Speaking of breeding plumage, we saw three magnificent male Hooded Mergansers with their hoods all up, and starting to rehearse a bit of head-bobbing courtship with a lone female. We also got great looks at a male and female American Kestrel hanging out together. Finally, we had good numbers of migrant and wintering sparrows – American Tree Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, White-crowned Sparrow, and Song Sparrow.
Hey! In writing this up, and as I leaf through my bird field guide, I’m thinking about how much I rely on the old taxonomic order of species which generally determines the order in which species appear in field guides (seabirds first, then ducks, raptors, chicken-like birds, herons, etc). AND NOW with so much DNA analysis, for you newbies this taxonomic order keeps getting shifted around almost, it seems, on an annual basis. So, I’m sending you my condolences, and urging you to stick with it and not get frustrated by name changes and changes in the order of the species. It is all a part of realizing that the more we know the more we know we don’t know. We, at the Front Range Birding Company will do our best to continue to help you gain greater proficiency with your birding skills, including an increased awareness of some of these relationships between groups of birds.
Saturday gave nine of us another beautiful morning at Hudson Gardens. We started out with a nice deluge of landbirds, including a Downy Woodpecker, several Black-capped Chickadees, a couple of very cooperative Red-breasted Nuthatches, and a nice little flock of Bushtits.
A real highlight was getting to see three juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons.
However, our main focus ended up being with the nice variety of ducks we were seeing, and starting to get a handle on identifying the females as well as the males. Looking at the American Wigeons notice the overall warm coloring, and then on the male see the white (or creamy) forehead, and the white hip-patch. While on the female, note her smeared mascara. Both have small light grayish-blue bills.
Looking at the Buffleheads notice how the male has a mostly white body, a large, round head, and the back of the head is all white. The female is gray-brown with a distinct oval white patch on her cheek.
Finally, looking at the Hooded Mergansers they both have crests. His is brilliant white surrounded by black, and hers is light brown. Notice that they both have thin bills and rather long tails.
Hope to see you soon on another walk!
Hudson Gardens, Oct 28, 2017
25 species (+1 other taxa)
Saturday mornings at Chatfield during the summer are a bit of a mixed bag. The number of ways in which people find to entertain themselves there are astounding, and the atmosphere can be quite circus like. Almost everywhere you look on land and water you see more people, and often birds are being flushed and forced to try and find calmer spots – no easy task.
Nonetheless, this can always be a great place to see a good variety of birds, and occasionally some really great rarities show up. You never know what you’ll see there and you just have to go and check it out. So, that’s what sixteen of us did on Saturday morning, eventually tallying 32 species.
So, we could have could have subtitled this walk as The Three Most Difficult Bird Groups to Identify: Fall Gulls, Shorebirds, and Sparrows, because, perhaps to the consternation of several of the participants, we ended up spending an inordinate amount of time struggling to identify birds in these three groups.
The gulls were perhaps the easiest, as we only had two species to deal with, but it is a harsh reality to realize that it takes most gulls 3-4 years to obtain adult plumage and there’s a lot of difficult identifications to wrestle with in the intervening years. So, not only did we see adult Ring-billed and California Gulls, but we also saw a 1st winter Ring-billed Gull, and a 3rd winter California Gull, and I’m sure we could have found even more with which to confuse ourselves. If this sort of masochism appeals to you make sure to come on some of our winter walks.
As for the sparrows, we did pretty well with the Lark Sparrows, even though they were mostly in their drab fall plumage, but then we ran into members of the Spizella genus. Yikes! Brewer’s, Clay-colored, and Chipping Sparrows are distinctive in breeding plumage, but things get very tough in the fall and really not something to which a nice bird walk leader subjects his/her participants. I’m not sure anyone got really good looks at these guys – not that it always helps – but learning to identify certain species at certain times of the year is not something that we can necessarily do without having spent hours (years?) of time in the field.
Finally, we got to the “peeps,” the little sandpipers. And at this point, I want to encourage all of you who are contemplating getting a spotting scope to please do so soon, as it is so helpful to have multiple eyes working on all aspects of identification of this potentially tough group of birds. So, we wrestled with: what color are the legs, how long is the bill, does it have an eye-ring, are the wings longer than the tail, etc…? And we came away with some degree of success.
So, congratulations to those of you who persevered with me on Saturday as we worked on some tough identifications, and I hope that you will all look forward to taking up that gauntlet again in the near future.