Betasso Preserve, August 10, 2019

Western Wood-Pewee. Photo by Jamie Simo.

We started our walk at Betasso Preserve under cloudy skies, which fortunately kept things a little cooler for our 3 mile trek along the Canyon Loop than they otherwise could’ve been this time of year. Betasso Preserve is ideal for hiking and birding on Wednesdays and Saturdays when the trail is closed to mountain bikers. The rest of the week, it’s strongly advised that you walk or jog the opposite direction from bikers so that you’re able to see each other coming. Right now, road work is progressing on Boulder Canyon Drive Monday through Thursday with delays and a full closure of the road between 10am and 2pm those days, so plan accordingly.

It being nearly mid-August and with migration ramping up, things were quieter than they’d been just two weeks earlier, but we were immediately greeted by Violet-green Swallows chattering and soaring over the parking lot. These swallows are ubiquitous in the foothills in spring and summer where they nest in old woodpecker holes in open forest. Western Wood-Pewees were everywhere as we walked, filling the hush with their querulous “pee-r” calls. This unassuming flycatcher is a greyish-brown with a slight peaked crown that tends to perch out in the open on the tops of conifers or on dead branches.

Male Red Crossbill. Photo by Ashley Wahlberg (Tubbs). https://flic.kr/p/qB8fhe

Particularly exciting were the small, roving flocks of Red Crossbills that seemed to follow us around the loop. These large finches are named for their distinctive crossed bills that help them easily lever open pine, fir, and spruce cones to get to the seeds inside. Males are a rosy red like a more decorative House Finch, while females are a greenish-yellow. While we at first were only able to hear the crossbills’ chirping, we finally got some great looks at a cooperative male perched atop a Ponderosa pine near the trail.

Townsend’s Solitaire. Photo by Jamie Simo.

In one small hollow a male Broad-tailed Hummingbird treated us to his his mating display. To impress females, male Broad-tails will climb high into the air and then dive, pulling up abruptly to form a rough J shape. No female was visible so perhaps he was just practicing for next year. Other highlights of the walk were a couple of Warbling Vireos and two silent Plumbeous Vireos (plumbeous referring to the lead grey color of the bird). Close to the end of the trail we also ran across a seemingly-young Townsend’s Solitaire, a member of the thrush family and cousin of the American Robin that can often be found defending territories rich in juniper berries in the winter.

In all, we heard or saw 26 taxa; pretty good for this time of year in the foothills! 

Betasso Preserve, August 10, 2019
25 Species (+1 additional taxa)
 
7 Broad-tailed Hummingbird 
3 hummingbird sp. 
2 Turkey Vulture 
5 Northern Flicker
17 Western Wood-Pewee 
2 Plumbeous Vireo 
2 Warbling Vireo
4 Steller’s Jay
5 American Crow 
4 Black-capped Chickadee 
8 Mountain Chickadee 
15 Violet-green Swallow
3 Red-breasted Nuthatch
2 White-breasted Nuthatch (Interior West)
14 Pygmy Nuthatch
3 House Wren 
8 Western Bluebird
1 Townsend’s Solitaire
1 American Robin 
3 House Finch
10 Red Crossbill
8 Pine Siskin 
2 Lesser Goldfinch 
6 Chipping Sparrow 
1 Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s)

Beaver Ranch, Aug 3, 2019 – with Chuck Aid

Mountain Chickadee (c) Bill Schmoker

Beaver Ranch is a new location for our Front Range Birding Company bird walks.  It is located just off US 285 a bit southwest of Conifer (about 25 minutes from the store) and is operated and managed by a local non-profit in agreement with Jeffco Open Space.  It provides cabin rentals, camping sites, a disc golf course, multiple ziplines, and occasional weddings are held there.  So, it can potentially be a bit of a zoo on a summer Saturday morning. However, we are quickly learning how to find some of its quieter corners, and it has excellent habitat for birds.

Downy Woodpecker (c) Bill Schmoker – note the black spots in the outer tail feathers, also the faint red spotting on the crown = juvenile.

Our first hot spot of the day was out in open montane grassland between a dense willow carr and a few scattered Ponderosa.  The grassy area was punctuated with some dense stands of purple-headed thistles which were proving very attractive to a beautiful male Lesser Goldfinch and a Downy Woodpecker.  It was difficult to get a good look at the Downy, which had the dark shoulders of the interior west subspecies (eastern Downys, which are the ones generally seen in Denver, have more white spotting on the shoulders).  Verification that the bird was a Downy was quickly obtained by noting the black spots on the outer tail feathers.  The very similar, but larger, Hairy Woodpecker lacks those spots. 

Red-naped Sapsucker (c) Bill Schmoker

In this same vicinity, while we were noting the Violet-green Swallows, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Song Sparrows, and Lincoln’s Sparrows, we saw a woodpecker fly into a nearby Ponderosa. A quick look with the binocs noted the long, white wing-patch characteristic of a sapsucker.  However, our bird was a juvenile (as were many birds on Saturday), and it took us awhile to determine that we had a Red-naped Sapsucker and not a Williamson’s.  The only red coloring noted was in the chin area, the rest of the head being rather uniformly dark with a faint white mustache stripe.  There was extensive white-and-black mottling in the back, and a patch of yellow on the belly.  We got to see none of the characteristic red, black, and white head stripes that we associate with Red-naped Sapsuckers, and we had to remind ourselves that until 1983 the Red-naped was lumped with the eastern Yellow-bellied Sapsucker as a single species, so yes it would have some yellow on its belly.  It was great getting to walk ourselves through the process of identification, and to be able to come out eventually with an ID that we felt comfortable with.

Evening Grosbeak (c) Bill Schmoker

Continuing on our way we had a good time sorting through the Mountain Chickadees, all three nuthatch species, the numerous juvenile Gray-headed (Dark-eyed) Juncos with their nondescript spotted plumage, and a male Western Tanager.  We eventually wended our way to our second hotspot of the day – a coniferous riparian area with great willows along a small stream.  We just stood there and couldn’t take it all in fast enough. The prize was getting wonderful long looks at a juvenile Evening Grosbeak – appearing rather doofy – and being fed by dad.  But in the same small area we had both species of chickadees, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, a Brown Creeper, a Yellow-rumped Warble, and a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  What fun!

Lark Sparrow (c) Bill Schmoker

So, then, we got back to our cars, thinking we were done, but in those final minutes we still got to see another Red-naped Sapsucker, a Barn Swallow, a Cliff Swallow, two Lark Sparrows, and a Brown-headed Cowbird.  A great way to round out our morning!

See you on another walk soon!

Chuck

Beaver Ranch, Aug 3, 2019
35 species

Broad-tailed Hummingbird  12
Turkey Vulture  5
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Red-naped Sapsucker  2
Downy Woodpecker  6
Hairy Woodpecker (Rocky Mts.)  1
Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)  1
Cordilleran Flycatcher  4
Steller’s Jay (Interior)  1
Common Raven  5
Violet-green Swallow  10
Barn Swallow  1
Cliff Swallow  1
Black-capped Chickadee  5
Mountain Chickadee  18
Red-breasted Nuthatch  6
White-breasted Nuthatch  9
Pygmy Nuthatch  25
Brown Creeper  1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  2
Mountain Bluebird  5
Townsend’s Solitaire  1
American Robin  2
Evening Grosbeak  3
Red Crossbill  5
Pine Siskin  4
Lesser Goldfinch  2
Lark Sparrow  2
Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed)  14
Song Sparrow  7
Lincoln’s Sparrow  3
Red-winged Blackbird  8
Brown-headed Cowbird  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler  2
Western Tanager  1

 

Hudson Gardens, July 27, 2019 – with Chuck Aid

Black-crowned Night-Heron (c) Bill Schmoker

So one of the first things to happen Saturday morning was that a Great Blue Heron flew in and landed in the branches of a cottonwood tree right beside us just as we were being surrounded by a family of loquacious Black-capped Chickadees.  And, then, we got to our first pond and got to see a beautiful adult Black-crowned Night-Heron with four juvenile Wood Ducks right beside it. It turns out that Tom Bush, owner of the Front Range Birding Company, later that same day saw six juvenile Wood Ducks hanging out with mom Wood Duck right in the same area.

Female Mallard (c) Bill Schmoker

The South Platte was moving along at a good clip, and the only waterfowl were a smattering of Mallards.  The males are totally in their eclipse plumage and best identified by their yellowish bill, as opposed to the female’s orange and black bill.  Song Sparrows along the river were singing in a number of places.

Chipping Sparrow (c) Bill Schmoker

Moving to the west side of the river we got to hear the ongoing screechy begging call of a nestling, (or juvenile) Red-tailed Hawk, and we saw one adult perched on a powerline pole.  Remember that the adult has the “red” (actually rust-colored) tail, and juveniles have dark and light banded tails with no red. In the same area we had a good sized flock of Chipping Sparrows, evidently prepping for the voyage south.

Juvenile Red-tail begging (c) Xeno-Canto:

Double-crested Cormorant (c) Bill Schmoker

So, what didn’t we see?  The sixty or so Cliff Swallows of a month ago were entirely gone from the Bowles Avenue bridge, as, for the most part, were the ubiquitous Yellow Warblers from all the cottonwoods in the area. We encountered no nuthatches, and only one Bullock’s Oriole.  There were no gulls flying by overhead, and no crows.  So, as we can expect with birds, nothing stays the same for very long.

Good Birding!
Chuck

Hudson Gardens, July 27, 2019
26 species (+1 other taxa)

Canada Goose  9
Wood Duck  4
Mallard  9
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  4
Mourning Dove  3
Broad-tailed Hummingbird  3
hummingbird sp.  1
Double-crested Cormorant  2
Great Blue Heron  2
Black-crowned Night-Heron  1
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Belted Kingfisher  1
Northern Flicker  18
Say’s Phoebe  1
Blue Jay  1
Black-billed Magpie  2
Black-capped Chickadee  12
American Robin  3
House Finch  17
Lesser Goldfinch  1
American Goldfinch  7
Chipping Sparrow  14
Song Sparrow  5
Bullock’s Oriole  1
Red-winged Blackbird  6
Brown-headed Cowbird  1
Yellow Warbler  1

Meyer’s Gulch Bird Walk 7/13

Pygmy nuthatches. Photo by Jamie Simo.

We couldn’t have asked for a much better trip to Meyer’s Gulch at Walker Ranch. The Meyer’s Gulch Trail took us through some of the best preserved examples of the native ecosystems where the Rocky Mountains and foothills meet in Boulder County. Of course, aside from the amazing views and wildflowers we saw an awesome assortment of birds.

On the first segment of the hike we got the opportunity to see and hear many Pygmy nuthatches. These tiny nuthatches are among the smallest in their family at only 4 inches long and with a body weight of only 10 grams. What they lack in size, however, they make up for in personality as they are gregarious, noisy and hyperactive. We also got to see two species of sparrow: the Vesper sparrow and the Chipping sparrow. The Vesper sparrow is a grass-loving species with a white eyering and outer tail feathers while Chipping sparrows are easily distinguished from other sparrows by their rusty caps, gray bodies, and black lores and beaks. We also got fleeting views of a beautiful Green-tailed towhee, a less common cousin of the Spotted towhee known for its unmistakable olive-yellow wings and tail. 

Fledging Red-naped sapsucker. Photo by Aidan Coohill

Some of our best birding happened in the willow carr next to the old mill. We quickly re-found the Red-naped sapsucker pair that I had found scouting for this trip and were able to see not only them but their fledgling young as it practiced scaling a ponderosa and foraging just like its parents. We were also treated to good views of a Cordilleran flycatcher, one of the more colorful Empids, and a fascinating bird that inhabits the cooler and damper slopes of arid forests. Other birds here included many House wrens, a single Pine siskin, both species of goldfinch, and a singing Plumbeous vireo. 

On our way back to the parking lot we continued to get great views of a male Western tanager and plenty of Western bluebirds. Sarah, by some miracle, found a lone Red crossbill sitting on a spruce far off in the distance. Thanks to a handy scope, most of the group was able to see the bird and its distinct beak that earns the species its name.

In the end, our trip netted us 30 bird species in all. Such a great day!

I would like to extend a special thanks to the amazing Sarah Spotten for helping me out on my first bird-walk with FRBC and all the great folks who joined us!

-Aidan Coohill

FRBC-Boulder Bird Walk to Betasso Preserve

Join us on Saturday, August 10th for FRBC-Boulder’s 2nd Saturday bird walk at Betasso Preserve.

Betasso Preserve spreads out over 1,100 acres of foothills habitat and is named for a family of homesteaders who ranched the land from the early 1900’s to 1976 when it became the first major open space property in Boulder County. Its scenic views make for an enjoyable hike, which is moderately difficult. Some notable species that may be seen at Betasso include Red Crossbills, Lark Sparrows, and migrating hummingbirds.

We will meet at the FRBC-Boulder store (5360 Arapahoe Ave., Ste. E Boulder, CO 80303) at 7:30am for our Birder’s Breakfast (featuring Birds & Beans “bird-friendly” certified coffee) and then carpool to Betasso Preserve. We will return by 12pm.

Please call the store (303.979.2475) to sign up. Limit is 15 participants. Preference will fall to those meeting at the store but any open spots can go to folks wishing to meet at the site.

Be sure to dress in layers for the weather and bring binoculars, water, snacks or lunch, hat, bug spray, and sunscreen.

Visit http://www.bouldercounty.org/os/parks/Pages/betassopreserve.aspx to learn more about Betasso Preserve.

Meyer Ranch, July 6 – with Chuck Aid

Savannah Sparrow (c) Bill Schmoker

Meyer Ranch provides a wonderful array of habitats – montane meadow, montane shrubland, mid-elevation willow carr, mixed aspen-conifer forest, pure aspen forest, ponderosa pine forest, Douglas-fir forest, lodgepole pine forest, wetlands, stream, cliffs, bridges, culverts, power poles, etc…. WHEW!  In turn, this wide array of habitats results in a wide array of birds, particularly during breeding season.  Remember that getting to know your habitats will help you become a better birder.

Black-headed Grosbeak (c) Bill Schmoker

 

I arrived at Meyer Ranch about 45 minutes before my group showed up from the Front Range Birding Company, and in that time recorded about 25 species.  Unfortunately, seven of these did not remain around for the group – Say’s Phoebe, Steller’s Jay, Common Raven, Hermit Thrush, Pine Siskin, Red Crossbill, and Black-headed Grosbeak.  However, once the group was there, we had our own suite of birds, including about ten that I had failed to see earlier.  So it goes in the birding world.

Cliff Swallows (c) Bill Schmoker

Even before we got out of the parking lot, we could see that someone had knocked down all the Cliff Swallow nests on the US 285 bridge over South Turkey Creek Road.  A sad piece of news, since back in mid-May over one hundred Cliff Swallows were recorded in this area.  So, here’s the scoop on the removal of these nests.  This was done by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), and in compliance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).  This means that as long as birds had not initiated egg-laying, CDOT was playing by the rules.  Their approach, which began in April this year, was to remove old nests in anticipation of construction projects scheduled for this summer.  They then continued to remove nests, as birds started to rebuild, in an attempt to discourage them from nesting in that area, which seemed to eventually work.

Cliff Swallow (c) Bill Schmoker

The reason for needing to discourage Cliff Swallows from nesting on the bridges is that if the birds are nesting at the time that a project eventually gets rolling, and that project then, subsequently creates a problem for the birds, then CDOT realizes that they would not be in compliance with the MBTA.  So, they try to be proactive.  It appears that there have been a number of projects along US 285 this year, so I think we need to give CDOT the benefit of the doubt, at least for this year.  What’s not clear is how much this could be anticipated to be an annual event, and whether there will be future years when the swallows will be allowed to breed once again with no disruptions.

Dark-eyed (gray-headed) Junco

Getting on with our walk, we had a number of highlights, including getting to see and hear singing Savannah Sparrows from very close.  We also got to hear two Williamson’s Sapsuckers calling and a Vesper Sparrow but failed to see them.  We had a nice variety of plumages for Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warblers from a brightly colored male to a very drab first-year bird.  We definitely enjoyed getting to see a pair of Dark-eyed (Gray-headed) Juncos taking turns bringing in beak-fulls of food to their nestlings.  The latter we couldn’t see, but we could definitely tell where their ground nest was.  Finally, as a final treat we got to briefly hear a Wilson’s Snipe calling.

Of course, at this time of year we also spent a good amount of time enjoying the great variety of flowers. The columbine are reaching their peak.

Good birding!
Chuck

Meyer Ranch, Jul 6, 2019
26 species

Broad-tailed Hummingbird  11
Wilson’s Snipe  2
Williamson’s Sapsucker  2
Hairy Woodpecker (Rocky Mts.)  1
Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)  2
Dusky Flycatcher  1
Cordilleran Flycatcher  2
Empidonax sp.  1
Warbling Vireo  6
Violet-green Swallow  3
Barn Swallow  8
Cliff Swallow  4
Mountain Chickadee  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
Brown Creeper  1
House Wren  3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  8
Mountain Bluebird  2
American Robin  7
Chipping Sparrow  7
Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed)  9
Vesper Sparrow  1
Savannah Sparrow  3
Song Sparrow  4
Red-winged Blackbird  5
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s)  4
Western Tanager  1

Hudson Gardens, June 29 – with Chuck Aid

Wood Duck – female (c) Bill Schmoker

What a great group of enthusiastic birders we had on Saturday morning, and there was a lot to be enthusiastic about!  For starters, as in prior years at Hudson Gardens, we once again had a mom Wood Duck with her flotilla of seven ducklings cruising around with her.  The only role the male seems to play when it comes to nesting is perhaps helping the female choose a cavity in which to lay her eggs. Beyond that the female does all the incubating, which takes about fourteen days.  The hatchlings, when they emerge, are covered with down, their eyes are open, and they require little else from mom (the ecological term for this type of self-sufficient youngster is “precocial”).  There is a residual yolk reserve that helps them initially, but they are very quickly on their own.  You may have seen videos of these stalwart daredevils leaping out of a cavity entrance into whatever lies below – here’s one to check out – http://www.swxrightnow.com/blogs/outdoors/2016/may/21/wood-duck-follow-mom-giant-leap-faith/.  The ducklings can scatter quite widely when feeding on various invertebrates and they seem more independent than the youngsters of other duck species.  We witnessed this on Saturday, watching the little ones cruising around and feeding with no initial evidence of mom at all.

Downy Woodpecker – juvenile (c) Bill Schmoker

Additional highlights included a few single birds as the only representative of their species.  We had one each of American White Pelican, Snowy Egret, Swainson’s Hawk, Belted Kingfisher, Say’s Phoebe, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Gray Catbird.  One other individual was of considerable interest.  We know that Downy Woodpeckers, with regard to appearance in the vicinity of the Front Range of Colorado can generally exhibit two different looks.  There is an eastern Downy of the Great Plains and eastern forests with more white in its wings and shoulders, and there is a western Downy with mostly black shoulders and less white in the wings.  These subspecies meet and often hybridize where the plains meet the mountains, and they can have intermediate plumages.  One further difference to look for is that Downys have sexual dimorphism, that is the males and females don’t look alike – the primary difference being that male has a bright red patch on its nape.  Now, back to Saturday.  The individual Downy that we saw had a red patch on the TOP of its head. How do explain that?  It was a juvenile, and both sexes get that red patch on top of the head for a brief time.

Cliff Swallows (c) Bill Schmoker

One other interesting observation was that the Cliff Swallows were in good abundance at their nests on the Bowles Avenue bridge.  This location has been used frequently, but perhaps not every year – the presence of ectoparasites from a prior year is one of several factors that may make a site not viable.  Last year in particular I did not notice any nesting there.  It’s a complex game when it comes to how Cliff Swallows choose their nest site.  Birds choose a colony site first, a process which may entail a collective decision-making process and involve birds visiting numerous likely colony locations.  Then it may take several additional days for a nest site to be chosen within the colony.

Finally, for those of you who have come on our Hudson Gardens bird walks in the past, you may recall the pair of Red-tailed Hawks that often perch conspicuously on top of the powerline poles on the west side of the Platte.  Well, they are there again, or at least there is a pair in the same location.

I hope you can make it to a future Hudson Gardens walk, and don’t forget that you can also come on one of the free first-Saturday-of-the-month Front Range Birding Company bird walks by calling the Littleton store to register (303-979-2473).

Chuck

Hudson Gardens, Jun 29, 2019
33 species

Canada Goose  60
Wood Duck  8
Mallard  12
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  1
Mourning Dove  7
Double-crested Cormorant  6
American White Pelican  1
Snowy Egret  1
Turkey Vulture  2
Swainson’s Hawk  1
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Belted Kingfisher  1
Downy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  4
Say’s Phoebe  1
Blue Jay  3
Black-billed Magpie  2
Cliff Swallow  60
Black-capped Chickadee  3
Bushtit  3
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
House Wren  6
American Robin  17
Gray Catbird  1
Cedar Waxwing  4
House Finch  7
American Goldfinch  3
Song Sparrow  7
Bullock’s Oriole  8
Red-winged Blackbird  13
Brown-headed Cowbird  5
Common Grackle  9
Yellow Warbler  7

Photo courtesy of Dave McLoughlin

Heil Valley Ranch, June 8, 2019

We couldn’t have asked for better weather for our trip to Heil Valley Ranch. Heil Valley Ranch is one of the jewels of the Boulder County Open Space program with over 6,000 acres of prime wildlife habitat, amazing vistas, and gorgeous wildflowers, all of which we were able to enjoy on a warm Saturday morning in June.

Cordilleran Flycatcher. Photo by Jamie SImo.

We first struck out on the Lichen Loop. Before we’d gotten over the bridge, we heard a Cordilleran Flycatcher calling. Cordilleran Flycatchers are small, yellowish flycatchers with large white eye rings that form a tear drop shape behind the eye. They tend to favor moist areas in coniferous forests, such as along streams, which is where we found this one. Flycatchers can be extremely difficult to tell apart, but this one helpfully says its name: “Cordi! Cordi!”

A visit to Heil Valley Ranch isn’t complete without a Wild Turkey sighting and we saw several. Most of Heil Valley Ranch is Ponderosa pine habitat and the turkeys eat the cones as well as insects and berries from bushes such as the chokecherry present in the valley. 

Not only is Ponderosa pine habitat good for foothills birds like Wild Turkeys, but also for mammals like the Abert’s squirrel and mule deer, both of which we got a chance to see on our hike. The Abert’s squirrels at Heil are almost exclusively melanistic, meaning that they’re a very dark brown or black color rather than grey. Heil is also an amazing place to go butterflying or wildflower watching and we were lucky to have some experts in our group to help identify them. Painted lady and orange sulphur butterflies were especially abundant.

Lazuli Bunting pair mating. Photo courtesy of Linda Hardesty.

Once we emerged from the Lichen Loop, we walked a short distance along the Wapiti Trail where we had fantastic views of a male Broad-tailed Hummingbird flashing his pink gorget, and several Lazuli Buntings. We even got to see a pair of Lazuli Buntings mating! Quite different from the bright blue and orange of the male, the female Lazuli Bunting is a warm cinnamon brown. She’s also much shyer than her mate; rather than singing from atop an exposed perch, she tends to hide in dense bushes. 

Male Lesser Goldfinch. Photo courtesy of Chris Friedman.

As we headed back to the parking lot, we finally got great looks at several birds we had only been able to hear deep in the trees: a male Lesser Goldfinch and a male Western Tanager. “Lesser” isn’t a value judgment; it really refers to having less yellow than our other Colorado goldfinch species, the American Goldfinch. Lesser Goldfinch males in Colorado have sooty black caps and dusky backs. When they fly, they flash large white patches on their wings. We had an unprecedented invasion of Western Tanagers in people’s yards this spring due to the cooler temperatures and late snow, but Western Tanagers typically breed up in the Ponderosa pine forests such as at Heil Valley Ranch. The males are a riot of red, yellow, and black, while females are a dingy yellow and grey.

Our trip netted us 25 bird species in all, plus an unidentified hummingbird (Broad-tailed or Black-chinned). Such a great day!

Waterton Canyon, June 1, 2019

We had such a great response to our first FRBC bird walk to Waterton Canyon that we had enough people to host 2 walks and we still had a waiting list! Although the day started off pretty windy, it thankfully calmed down as we walked. Windy days can be some of the worst days to bird because small songbirds will hunker down to get out of the wind and it can be hard to hear birds singing.

Andrea’s Group:

Violet-green Swallow (left) versus Tree Swallow (right). Photo by Jamie Simo.

Waterton Canyon trailhead is located in Littleton, near the Audubon Center at Chatfield off of Waterton Road. The area has an interesting history with Kassler just across from the parking lot.  Kassler was once an active town where employees of Denver Water lived and managed the dams and reservoirs of the canyon.  The trail, once a thriving railroad, has a gentle incline and is widely used by bikers, joggers, families and even burros! (We stopped to visit with two burros and their owner who was preparing them for the summer circuit.) Note that if you plan to visit Waterton Canyon, the parking lot fills quickly on weekends, and from June 3-14 weekday access is closed for annual dust mitigation.

We barely started down the trail before birds were appearing left and right. One thing I really appreciated about our group was the team effort in finding birds, helping others to find the exact location of a bird, and identifying birds. The group shared a ready camaraderie – though we didn’t know each other, you’d have thought we were old friends. Oh, the magic of birding! And with new birds coming into view around every bend and sometimes every few steps, we were thrilled at the great birds we saw (Lazuli Buntings, Yellow Breasted Chats, Yellow Warblers and Cedar Waxwings to name a few), and thrilled to share it with each other.

We got some great views of Tree Swallows and Violet-green Swallows and took some time to learn their distinguishing field marks. Both of these swallows have white undersides. In flight, the white of the Violet-green Swallow wraps onto the sides of the rump; the Tree Swallow has a small crescent on each side of the rump, not nearly as noticeable as the white rump of the Violet-green Swallow. The white on the Violet-green Swallow also extends well into the face – above the eye and covering the cheek; the Tree Swallow’s blue hood extends through the eye, forming a sharp contrast between the blue above and white below. The Violet-green Swallow has a shorter tail with narrower wings that extend beyond the tail, noticeable in flight, and especially while perched; the Tree Swallow has broader wings and a longer, notched tail.

The morning sun cast a yellow glow on the breast of a bird that puzzled us us until we determined we really were seeing blue on it’s back.  A Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay!

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Deckler.

Toward the end of our walk, an interesting sparrow was seen foraging on the ground and perching in the shrubs. The face had bold coloring – white, rust and black, and the outer tail feathers were white. Any guesses? It was a Lark Sparrow!

Waterton Canyon–from Waterton Rd to overhead pipes, Jun 1, 2019 
28 species

Canada Goose 4
Mallard 1
Common Merganser 5
Turkey Vulture 4
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Western Meadowlark 1
White-throated Swift 1
Black-chinned Hummingbird 1
Broad-tailed Hummmingbird 2
Belted Kingfisher 1
Northern Flicker 3
Olive-sided Flycatcher 1
Say’s Phoebe 1
Western Kingbird 1
Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay 3
Violet-green Swallow 2
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 1
Barn Swallow 3
Tree Swallow 4
House Wren 4
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 2
Cedar Waxwing 4
Yellow Warbler 8
Yellow-breasted Chat 2
Spotted Towhee 6
Lark Sparrow 1 
Lazuli Bunting 6
Bullock’s Oriole 2

Jamie’s Group:

Yellow-breasted Chat. Photo courtesy of Bob Magee.

Yellow was definitely the color of the day. By far, the most numerous bird we encountered was the Yellow Warbler. The brilliant, bright yellow males with their brick-red breast stripes were everywhere singing their “Sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet!” songs from both high and low in the canopy. Next door at the Audubon Nature Center at Chatfield, this is the bird that is most frequently caught during bird banding. Yellow Warblers are most commonly found in wet areas such as at the edges of streams or marshes.

Normally skulky, we got fantastic looks at the Yellow-breasted Chat, an olive-backed bird with a bright yellow breast and throat, thick bill, and loud “chatty” voice. The chat used to be formally lumped in with the warblers, but has since been split off into its own family of which it is the only member. There just literally is nothing else like the Yellow-breasted Chat!

Other yellow birds seen were both American and Lesser Goldfinches, and Cedar Waxwings (hey, the tip of the tail counts!).

Cedar Waxwing. Photo courtesy of Bob Magee.

Another normally secretive bird that you’re more likely to hear than see is the Gray Catbird. However, that wasn’t the case on Saturday! We had a dapper little catbird male singing right out in the open for us. Both sexes are slate gray with little black caps and a flush of maroon under the tail. Named for the cat-like “meow” it often gives at the end of repeated phrases, the Gray Catbird is a mimic like the Northern Mockingbird. 

One of the most exciting birds of the day was the Lazuli Bunting. In the same family as the Northern Cardinal, the Lazuli Bunting male is a beautiful, blue bird with an orange sherbet-colored breast. Their stout, conical bills are perfectly suited for cracking seeds. The breath-taking blue of the Lazuli Bunting’s feathers is due to the structure of the feathers rather than being a pigment in the feather itself. Most blues and greens in bird feathers are “structural colors.”

Near the end of our walk we ran across an id challenge: a silent flycatcher sitting on a post. Flycatchers are notoriously difficult to identify when not singing. This one was a large flycatcher with a slight head crest and no eyering so the initial thought was that it was a Western Wood-Pewee, but when it turned around we got a great look at its dark “vest.” This “vest” is characteristic of the Olive-sided Flycatcher, which is in the same genus as the Western Wood-Pewee. Mystery solved!

In all, we observed 35 species, an incredibly successful day.

Waterton Canyon–from Waterton Rd to overhead pipes, Jun 1, 2019 
35 species

Mallard  1
Common Merganser  2
Mourning Dove  3
Black-chinned Hummingbird  2
Broad-tailed Hummingbird  7
American White Pelican  2
Turkey Vulture  1
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)  4
American Kestrel  2
Olive-sided Flycatcher  1
Western Wood-Pewee  2
Warbling Vireo  2
Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay  2
Violet-green Swallow  12
Barn Swallow  4
Cliff Swallow  8
Black-capped Chickadee  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  2
House Wren  7
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2
American Dipper  1
Gray Catbird  2
European Starling  1
Cedar Waxwing  10
Lesser Goldfinch  7
American Goldfinch  4
Lark Sparrow  1     
Song Sparrow  1
Spotted Towhee  5
Yellow-breasted Chat  2
Western Meadowlark  1
Brown-headed Cowbird  2
Yellow Warbler  7
Lazuli Bunting  2