Immature Bald Eagle in flight. Photo by Jamie Simo

Milavec Reservoir, January 8th–with 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.           

Waneka Lake/Greenlee Preserve, November 13th–with Jamie Simo

European Starling in June showing mostly worn feather edges. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It was a gusty morning this past Saturday at Waneka Lake and Greenlee Preserve, but thankfully that didn’t keep us from seeing some great birds, including some small songbirds that tend to hunker down deep in the brush on windy days. We were immediately greeted in the parking lot by a flock of European Starlings. I have mixed

Male Red-winged Blackbird showing brown feather edges in December. Photo by Jamie Simo.

feelings about these invasive birds, but they are very adaptable and quite beautiful. The name “starling” comes from the white speckle pattern they wear in the winter. Rather than molting into new plumage in the spring, abrasion gradually wears the pale tips off their feathers leaving behind the irridescent green- and purple-black feathers they wear during courtship. Male Red-winged Blackbirds’ glossy black appearance in spring and summer is also due to abrasion rather than molt.

One special song bird we briefly saw was a White-throated Sparrow. This chunky little sparrow is common in the Eastern U.S., but is relatively rare here in Colorado, though it’s shown up at Waneka Lake the last few winters. White-throated Sparrows have head stripes like our usual White-crowned Sparrow, but it has yellow lores (the space between the eye and the beak), and, obviously, a white throat. On their regular wintering grounds they’ll often practice singing just like our White-crowned Sparrows will. Their song is often mnemonicized as “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.”

Winter along the Front Range is prime duck and goose season and Waneka Lake/Greenlee Preserve didn’t disappoint. At Greenlee Preserve were were able to get great looks at both dabbling ducks such as Mallards and American Wigeon, as well as diving ducks like Buffleheads and Ring-necked Ducks. Dabbling Ducks are surface-feeding ducks. Rather than diving under the water to find food such as fish, they can be seen with their butts tipped up in the air while their heads are busy underwater sucking up aquatic plants or small insects. Because they feed on the surface, dabbling ducks are more agile on land with feet more in the center of their bodies while diving ducks have legs and feet placed well back on their bodies to act as little rudders when swimming underwater. 

The highlight of our trip was the 3 most likely hybrid Canada x Snow Geese we saw in a large flock of Canada and Cackling Geese on Waneka Lake proper. These geese were distinguished from “blue phase” Snow Geese by their uniformly dark bodies with no white on the tertials and by their greyish-pink bills.

Hybrid Canada x Snow Goose. Photo by Jamie Simo.

A great day for birding!

Waneka Lake/Greenlee Preserve

27 species (+1 other taxa)

Cackling Goose  100

Canada Goose  400

Snow x Canada Goose (hybrid)  3   

American Wigeon  5

Mallard  66

Ring-necked Duck  3

Bufflehead  5

Common Goldeneye  1

Eurasian Collared-Dove  3

American Coot  2

Ring-billed Gull  9

Sharp-shinned Hawk  1

Bald Eagle  2

Red-tailed Hawk  1

Northern Flicker  1

Blue Jay  3

Black-billed Magpie  1

American Crow  3

Common Raven  1

Black-capped Chickadee  7

White-breasted Nuthatch (Interior West)  1

European Starling  30

American Robin  3

House Sparrow  3

House Finch  3

White-crowned Sparrow  4

White-throated Sparrow  1

Red-winged Blackbird  30

 

Hudson Gardens Bird Walk With Front Range Birding’s Patti Galli – October 29, 2021

 

What a beautiful Colorado fall day! There are not many places like this in the US,  if I do say so myself, especially this time a year.  The trees were still gorgeous and the  temperature perfect. Maybe there were not a lot of birds today, but the walk was still very enjoyable for all.

The first birds we saw were the ever dependable House Finches – singing away! Though very abundant, House Finches do thrive very well. The males do not always have red breast coloring  Once in a while, depending on what the eat, the male breast can be orange or even yellow in coloring.

 

                 photo of Great Blue Heron by Bill Schmoker

We got a fantastic view of a Great Blue Heron right by the South Platte river. It sat still for a moment, but after seeing us, as we were getting maybe to close, it took to flight. We saw it lift its large wings into the air and fly right past us! The Great Blue Heron is in the wading bird family, such as Bitterns, Herons and Egrets. They have spear like bills and seize prey with lightning -quick forward strikes. We all cheered in delight!

Making our way along the South Platte river, we noticed many ducks are returning here to their wintering grounds. Our walk takes us over a bridge for another look at the ducks, and right into the riparian area for some Chickadees, Northern Flickers, American Robins, and another fun find, a juvenile Coopers Hawk! We noticed he was still a little unsure of himself when it came to hunting.

We finally made our way to the Hudson Gardens feeders for a good look at  Dark- eyed Juncos , Blue Jays,  and White breasted-Nuthatches. Truly a wonderful morning with our new birding friends! We spotted a total of 23 species , which we thought was not too bad.

ebird Checklist share here:    https://ebird.org/mychecklists?subID=Uzk2ODk2MjMz&s=t

Patti

Rabbit Mountain, September 11th–with Sarah Spotten

The morning of September 11, 2021 at the Ron Stewart Preserve at Rabbit Mountain began bright and hot for our intrepid group of six birders (myself included) – and got brighter and hotter as it drew on. With each hour of our trip, the sky grew welcomely bluer, as the wildfire smoke that had been hanging around for the last week began to blow out of the area.

Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The Rabbit Mountain area is the easternmost reach of the Rocky Mountain foothills in Boulder County. As such, it lies in an ecotone where the open shortgrass prairie ecosystem meets and merges with the Ponderosa Pine habitat of the foothills, and interesting species from both habitats can occur here. Golden Eagles nest nearby and are regularly seen soaring over the area year-round. Unfortunately, we did not see any Golden Eagles on this hike – but we did see several other interesting raptors, including a fantastic close-range flyover by a Ferruginous Hawk as we were hiking down the hill that allowed us to study it from below as well as from above, and compare it to nearby soaring Red-tailed Hawks.

With the birds being rather quiet and skulky this time of year in the post-breeding and fall migration season, we practiced a good amount of birding by ear. Finding Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a tiny bird that spends a lot of time foraging in dense vegetation, becomes much easier when one learns to recognize their wheezy “beee, beee” calls. Even though we only ever had brief views of Spotted Towhee and Green-tailed Towhee, the group learned to know which towhee was skulking in the bushes just out of view by discerning between their common calls: the lower-pitched, raspy mewing call of Spotted Towhee versus the very high-pitched, drawn-out sparrow-like “tseeeet” of Green-tailed Towhee (indeed, towhees are sparrows). At one point, we all heard a Blue Jay out in the open at pretty close range…and yet somehow none of us managed to see it. The call was so definitively Blue Jay, though, that we wouldn’t have needed to see it to confirm the ID – so on the eBird checklist it went!

Speaking of confirming IDs, we had two field lessons on the subject on our Rabbit Mountain bird walk:

  1. Empidonax flycatchers are hard to ID.
  2. Accipiters in flight are hard to ID.

The first ID challenge involved a silent, briefly seen flycatcher at the north end of the preserve. A lot of North American flycatcher species look very similar to each other, with sometimes overlapping characteristics that make them very difficult to tell apart visually (even in the hand!). Indeed, the best way to identify most North American flycatchers is by voice. Well, our bird was silent (as a lot of them will be this time of year, on migration), so no help there.* Our flycatcher had a complete white eyering and showed shorter, rounder wings than a pewee when it flew, placing it squarely in genus Empidonax and ruling out Olive-sided Flycatcher and Western Wood-Pewee (genus Contopus). It was grayish overall with a slightly peaked crown, faint dusky vest and slight yellowish wash to the underparts, and had a smaller bill than Willow Flycatcher. This time of year – post-breeding dispersal and fall migration season – the open juniper and cottonwood habitat in which we saw it didn’t provide many helpful clues, as the bird was possibly just passing through and not in its preferred setting. What little we could piece together in the few seconds we observed the bird only narrowed down the probable ID to one of four flycatcher species in genus Empidonax that are likely in this area: Dusky, Least, Hammond’s, and Gray. At the end of the day, if one simply doesn’t have enough information to clinch the species ID, it’s best not to guess. Instead, it’s better to leave the ID at the highest taxonomic level one can be sure of – in this case, genus Empidonax.

Soaring Cooper’s Hawk. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The second ID challenge came as we approached the parking lot near the end of our stay at Rabbit Mountain: a small, long-tailed raptor catching a thermal overhead. The rounded wings eliminated American Kestrel, which has the pointed wings of a falcon. The overall shape of the bird was that of genus Accipiter, the small, powerful “forest hawks,” three species of which occur in North America. This particular Accipiter was clearly a youngster, sporting brown upper parts and heavily streaked with brown below. Definitely too small for Northern Goshawk, the largest North American Accipiter, but was it too large for Sharp-shinned Hawk (the

Sharp-shinned Hawk. Photo by Jamie Simo.

smallest) – and therefore the middle sibling, Cooper’s Hawk? We debated in the field between Sharpie and Coop. I snapped a few quick photos with the bird at a few different angles to study later. I try to do this on tricky IDs in order to prove myself wrong later on my field calls – which happened to be the case with our Accipiter! The photos revealed that in fact, we were looking at a Sharp-shinned Hawk, likely female by its larger size approaching Cooper’s Hawk (and hence the confusion in the field!). Features in favor of Sharp-shinned Hawk (and in contrast to Cooper’s Hawk) include the sharp-cornered tail with not much graduation in length from inner to outer rectrices (tail feathers), a strongly S-curved trailing edge to the wings, more strongly curved leading edge to the wings, a body shape wide at the shoulders and narrow at the hips versus Cooper’s Hawk’s more barrel-chested proportions, smaller head size relative to the rest of the bird, and plumage features including a thin pale terminal edge on the tail and heavy brown streaking on the underparts (this last feature only applicable to our bird because it was an immature individual).

Another highlight of the day was watching a male Lesser Goldfinch attend one of his recently-fledged progeny. The baby Lesser Goldfinch was uniformly green-gray, with a stubby little tail and wings, and wisps of down peeking out on its crown. It begged with fluttering wings, awkwardly following dad around. While breeding season may be over for many birds, goldfinches breeding in our area time their families for the abundant seed crop of late summer. They are the “last call” breeders of the season, a happy reminder of those halcyon summer days filled with adorable baby birds (or tricky juvenile IDs, depending on your opinion) before we remember that cold winter days (and winter birds!) are coming just around the corner!

See you next time – let’s go birding!

eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S94535187

 

26 species (+ 1 other taxon), 85 individuals

11 Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))

5 Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

1 Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius)

1 Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)

2 Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

1 Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)

1 Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

1 Empidonax sp.

1 Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

4 Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia)

1 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea)

1 Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus)

3 Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus)

17 American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

1 House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

15 Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria)

1 American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

1 Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)

1 Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus)

2 Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus)

3 Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus)

4 Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

1 Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens)

1 Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)

2 Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)

2 Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla)

1 Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena)

*Side note: at the time we saw the Empidonax flycatcher, one of our walk participants was running the new (as of summer 2021) Sound ID feature of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free Merlin Bird ID app on their phone. The app gave a secondary hit to Dusky Flycatcher, but this was at the same time that two Yellow-rumped Warblers were flying over and giving their chip calls, which are similar to a call made by Dusky Flycatcher. The app had already correctly IDed the warblers. It would be interesting to go back to that recording and its spectrogram and see if our flycatcher did indeed call at that moment.

Walker Ranch Meyer’s Gulch, July 10th–with Jamie Simo

Juvenile Western Bluebird. Photo by Chris Friedman.

Walker Ranch is a fantastic place to go in summer for birds, butterflies, and blossoms. On Saturday, July 10th, 10 of us met up at the Meyer’s Gulch (also called Meyer’s Homestead) trailhead. Right off the bat we were greeted by a trio of mule deer bucks. A “bachelor herd” such as this one is usually comprised of immature males that have left their parent herd, but haven’t yet gained a harem of their own. These guys were almost completely unconcerned by us as we organized in the parking lot prior to our hike.

Every day is different when it comes to birding. While my Friday scouting trip was entirely bereft of bluebirds, a small flock put in an appearance to the delight of all on Saturday, including at least one immature bird distinguished by its spotted breast. Boulder County Open Space volunteers maintain the bluebird boxes along Meyer’s Gulch and Western (and sometimes Mountain) Bluebirds regularly set up shop in them. The mix of open Ponderosa woodland and meadow is the perfect habitat for Western Bluebirds, which are larger and a darker cobalt blue than their Eastern counterparts.

Lincoln’s Sparrow. Photo by Chris Friedman.

We also had a good day for sparrows. An especial treat was the pair of Lincoln’s Sparrows that made themselves known on the trek back to the parking lot. Lincoln’s Sparrows can often be confused for Song Sparrows and, to make it even more difficult, they can co-occur in the same wet meadow habitats. However, Lincoln’s Sparrows are smaller and more “refined” than their larger breathren with narrow, distinct breast streaks, a buffy wash on the breast, and often a more visible crest. They also often tend to be a little shyer and more retiring, but, happily, we were treated to great views of, and even some singing from, these subtly handsome birds.

Perhaps our most cooperative bird of the day was the Western Wood-Pewee. One of our most conspicuous flycatchers, this dull brown bird likes to sit upright on exposed perches, making it very easy to see. The same could not be said for the MacGillivray’s Warbler that we heard streamside, but that wouldn’t come out of the tangle of willows he was hidden in.

Meadow anemone. Photo by Jamie Simo.

In addition to birds, we had a great day for butterflies. Just a few of the butterflies we saw were the hoary comma, Weidemeyer’s admiral, and several species of blue. They were particularly attracted to the wet sand and pools of water along sections of the trail, a behavior called “puddling,” that allows the butterflies to ingest salts and minerals they don’t get from feeding on nectar. A big thanks to Chris Friedman who helped us identify the many butterflies and skippers we encountered! Wildflowers of note included Indian paintbrush, meadow anemone, sulfur flower, and sticky geranium. All in all, a fantastic day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walker Ranch–Meyers Gulch
Jul 10, 2021
30 taxa

2 Mourning Dove
9 Broad-tailed Hummingbird
1 Red-tailed Hawk
2 Northern Flicker
4 Western Wood-Pewee
1 Hammond’s/Dusky Flycatcher
1 Cordilleran Flycatcher
2 Warbling Vireo
2 Steller’s Jay
3 Black-billed Magpie
3 American Crow
1 Black-capped Chickadee
8 Mountain Chickadee
1 Violet-green Swallow
1 Red-breasted Nuthatch
2 White-breasted Nuthatch
6 Pygmy Nuthatch
4 House Wren
6 Western Bluebird – FL
3 American Robin
2 Pine Siskin
1 Chipping Sparrow
1 Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed)
2 Vesper Sparrow
1 Song Sparrow
2 Lincoln’s Sparrow
1 Green-tailed Towhee
1 Spotted Towhee
1 MacGillivray’s Warbler
3 Western Tanager

Lagerman Agricultural Preserve Open Sky Loop, June 12–with Aron Smolley

Grasslands are an iconic habitat of Colorado, although often overlooked since they lie in the shadow of the epic landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park. However, grasslands and prairies account for a good percentage of Colorado natural areas. Sadly, in today’s day and age these crucial wildlife habitats are fragmented by roads and development, grazed by free-range cattle, and converted into farmland. Grassland birds happen to be one of the most imperiled groups of birds in the United States, having declined by around 40% since the 1960’s. Nevertheless, our native Colorado grassland birds seem to adapt well to the ever-changing landscapes, and Lagerman Agricultural Preserve provides rich habitat for an abundance of birds which is why we chose this location for the June 12th bird walk.

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Aron Smolley.

We had the largest group we’ve had in a while, after making a last-minute decision to allow the entire wait list to join. The first stretch of the Open Sky Loop is relatively uneventful, although we did get some nice views of western meadowlarks as well as a slow-motion Cooper’s Hawk flyover. There are little pockets of cottonwood trees and agricultural ditches along the trail, creating more diversity of habitat and we were lucky enough to find a Common Yellowthroat singing in one of the trees.

Further up the trail, by the ag pond, we stopped for a while and scoped out the surrounding area. Swainson’s Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks soared overhead, and both Eastern and Western Kingbirds chased insects from prominent fencepost perches. This provided an excellent opportunity to compare these species side-by-side, as well as generate some interesting discussion about bird behavior and adaptations. When Kingbirds catch insects in midair, this behavior is known as “hawking” and although it seems like a major acrobatic feat, to the bird it is as simple as opening the refrigerator door to us. This is because birds’ brains can interpret what they are seeing at a much higher-frame rate than we can, so they can react much quicker to the erratic flight pattern of an insect. We also enjoyed the thrill of watching one of the Kingbirds chasing other birds away from the area, and this territorial behavior is where they get their name.

Although our three target species (Bobolink, Dickcissel, and Blue Grosbeak) were nowhere to be found, we managed to get some soul-satisfying views of quite a few other species, including Cliff Swallows, American Goldfinch, and even a half-asleep roosting Great Horned Owl! Everyone got to view this majestic nocturnal raptor using the Novagrade phone adapter through the Zeiss Gavia spotting scope at 60x magnification. Other species of note were Osprey, American Kestrel, and Blue-winged Teal. For a hot day, and the trail being crowded with groups of bikers, I would say we didn’t do half bad.

 

1 Cooper’s Hawk

3 Swainson’s Hawks

2 Red-Tailed Hawks

Western Kingbird. Photo by Jamie Simo.

2 American Kestrels

1 Great-Horned Owl

1 Unidentified Raptor

Eastern Kingbird. Photo by Jamie Simo.

2 Western Kingbirds

2 Eastern Kingbirds

2 Blue-winged teal

1 Double-crested Cormorant

1 Great Blue Heron

1 Common Yellowthroat

X Mourning Dove

X Eurasian Collared Dove

X Black-billed Magpie

X Cliff Swallow

X European Starling

X Western Meadowlark

X Red-winged Blackbird

X Common Grackle

1 Great-Tailed Grackle

X American Goldfinch

Lagerman Reservoir, May 8

Until 2020, I only thought of Lagerman Reservoir in Boulder County as a good place to stop for a bathroom break when driving the Boulder County Raptor Loop for winter raptors. Boy, was I wrong! Last year, Lagerman was featured in multiple rare bird alerts during spring and fall migration sparking my curiosity (and that of many other birders in the area). When Front Range Birding Company asked me to lead a bird walk there on International Migratory Bird Day, I jumped at the opportunity!

American Avocet. Photo by Sheridan Samano.

Our group convened at Lagerman’s north shore near the parking lot. We were quickly treated with up close views of American Avocets in striking breeding plumage. Avocets have long bluish-gray legs, a long recurved bill, and a black-and-white chevron pattern on their back and wings. The name Avocet comes from the Italian avosetta, which means ‘graceful bird’. Scything the water’s surface in search of aquatic invertebrates is the hallmark foraging method of Avocets.

Foraging near the Avocets were several Wilson’s Phalaropes, the largest and most terrestrial of the world’s three phalarope species. Phalaropes may best be known for their reversed sex-role mating system. Females are the larger and showier sex. They compete for the attention of males and sometimes mate with multiple individuals, a process called polyandry. Males provide parental care. Exceptions in nature are always a crowd pleaser so the phalaropes sparked interesting dialogue among the group.

Wilson’s Phalaropes (male and female). Photo by Sheridan Samano.

With Lagerman’s seasonal closure, a spotting scope works best for distant viewing on the water and along the southern shoreline. With scopes, we identified a variety of species from ducks to grebes and gulls to terns.

After everyone had their fill of scope viewing, we walked to Lagerman’s east side. We listened to Western Meadowlarks singing in the fields, watched as a male American Kestrel precariously perched on a mullein stalk, and observed a Spotted Sandpiper with its bouncy-butt moving along the rocky shoreline.

In the agricultural field east of the reservoir, we found Vesper Sparrows and American Pipits. Sparrows are infamously tough to ID, but one Vesper perched in the open for several minutes affording everyone good looks at its diagnostic rufous wing patch. Vesper means evening. Vesper Sparrows are known to sing well into the twilight after most birds have stopped singing for the day.

For the morning’s grand finale, an adult Bald Eagle flew right over us with obvious prey in its talons. In real time, we weren’t sure what it was carrying but the consensus was that it was a duck. Upon closer examination of photos after our walk, a rabbit was revealed. 

Even with gusty sustained winds, everyone agreed Lagerman delivered on quality sightings. The final tally of 41 species wasn’t too shabby either.

eBird Checklist – 41 Species

Species     Count
Canada Goose 11
Blue-winged Teal 4
Northern Shoveler 1
Gadwall 7
Mallard 1
Lesser Scaup 2
Bufflehead 3
Ruddy Duck 2
Eared Grebe 4
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 1
American Avocet 8
Killdeer 3
Western Sandpiper 3
Long-billed Dowitcher 1
Wilson’s Phalarope 18
Spotted Sandpiper 1
Lesser Yellowlegs 1
Franklin’s Gull 20
Forster’s Tern 3
Double-crested Cormorant 4
American White Pelican 2
Great Blue Heron 1
White-faced Ibis 1
Turkey Vulture 1
Osprey 1
Bald Eagle 2
Red-tailed Hawk 1
American Kestrel 1
Western Kingbird 2
Black-billed Magpie 3
Common Raven 1
Tree Swallow 9
Violet-green Swallow 1
Barn Swallow 2
Cliff Swallow 11
American Pipit 3
Vesper Sparrow 2
Western Meadowlark 4
Red-winged Blackbird 7
Brown-headed Cowbird 1
Common Grackle 2

 

Front Range Birding Company’s blog readers get 10% off Best Birding Hikes – Colorado’s Front Range. Enter discount code FRBC at check out.

Sombrero Marsh, April 10th–with Morgan Sherwood

It was a beautiful morning of birdwatching and banding at Sombrero Marsh, in partnership with Thorne Nature Experience. We began by taking a short walk down to the bird blind that overlooks the marsh. In addition to the large flocks of Canada Geese, there were quite a few Green-Winged Teal, as well as Mallards and three Gadwalls. While we were watching, two Killdeer showed up on the shore and we enjoyed watching them walk on the beach.

Tree Swallow on nestbox. Photo by Janet Meyer.

As we headed toward Thorne’s education building, we saw two Say’s Phoebes, which was a first for some of our participants from the East coast. While walking back, we also saw a Western Meadowlark perched on a post and talked about its song. We arrived at Thorne’s educational building just as Oak Thorne was showing up to demonstrate bird banding for our group. He has been banding birds for nearly 70 years! He began when  he was 13 years old, and his high school biology teacher introduced him to it. He founded the nature education center named for him in 1954 and it has been connecting kids to the outdoors ever since. 

I started attending nature-themed summer camps with Thorne Nature Experience when I was eight years old and signed up for Oak’s Beginner Bird Banding camp as soon as I was 12 years old. I immediately fell in love with bird banding and have been doing it ever since. While we were waiting for Oak to catch birds in the traps set up near the building, we watched a small flock of Tree Swallows that were conveniently posing on top of some bird houses in front of the beautiful mountain landscape.

Oak Thorne showing off his bird banding feeder trap. Photo by Janet Meyer.

The traps were unusually quiet at first, which seemed mysterious until one of our participants spotted a Cooper’s Hawk in the area–that explained it! The hawk moved on and, soon enough, Oak caught a male Red-Winged Blackbird in one of his traps. The traps have seeds in them and most of the time, when he isn’t banding, they are normal bird feeders, and the birds are accustomed to freely moving in and out of them. When Oak is ready to band, he activates a control panel inside the Thorne building to close the feeder and trap the birds inside.

This bird was not banded and so the group got to see an up-close demo of banding and had the opportunity to hold the bird.

Male Red-winged Blackbird being banded. Photo by Janet Meyer.

One of the participants released it and we once again waited for more birds to come into the trap. While we waited, the Cooper’s Hawk from earlier flew over, as well as a Double-crested Cormorant. After a short while, Oak announced he had caught a whole flock of male Red-Winged Blackbirds. The group went around the back of the building to examine the traps and watch the process of removing birds. As we removed the birds one by one, it became clear that many of them had already been banded. This is quite common, since Oak bands at Sombrero Marsh frequently and even the recaptures provide useful data. For the birds that are already banded, Oak still records all of the information about them as sometimes we will catch a bird multiple years in a row and this provides valuable information about their lifespans. All of his data gets electronically submitted to a national database based in Laurel, Maryland. 

There were a couple unbanded birds in this catch and participants got to use the special bird banding pliers and fit the small aluminum band on the bird’s leg before releasing them again.

Red-Winged Blackbirds are by far the most common birds Oak bands at the marsh, but in the summer he also gets Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, White-Crowned Sparrows, Mourning Doves, and the occasional Blue Jay or American Robin. 

It was a great morning with lots of waterfowl, songbirds, and a bird banding demo with a master bird bander. We were lucky enough to have a photographer come and take lots of pictures of the whole process. A few are included in this post but you can see the whole gallery at this link. Big thank you to Janet Meyer for capturing these shots!

https://janetmeyerphotography.smugmug.com/Events/Bird-Walk-/

Bird Count:

2 Red-Tailed Hawks

20 Green-Winged Teals

3 Gadwalls

10 Mallards

2 Killdeer

2 Say’s Phoebe

8 Tree Swallows

1 Cooper’s Hawk

1 Cormorant

1 Western Meadowlark

25 Red-Winged Black Birds (10 banded and released)

26 Canada geese

Stearn’s Lake, April 2, 2021–with Sheridan Samano

Early morning has the reputation for being the best time to go birding. It’s definitely a sweet spot for peak bird activity, but as the days get longer, you might find it convenient to bird later in the day.

On April 2, we met at Stearns Lake at 5:30 pm. Even before leaving the parking lot, we had the opportunity to pick out a lone white Snow Goose among a hundred or so Cackling Geese. Snow Geese have a  ‘grin patch’ – a dark patch on the side of the beak that makes the beak look open or like the bird is grinning. It’s not always easy to see the ‘grin patch’, but the setting sun provided ideal lighting conditions to do just that.

Bald Eagle – Second or Third Year. Photo by Sheridan Samano.

It wasn’t long before a Bald Eagle flew over the lake scattering the large flock of geese. Since 2012, a pair of Bald Eagles has nested near Stearns Lake. For several years, their nest was in a large cottonwood tree east of Del Corso Park, a small park wedged between apartment complexes that can be seen to the west of Stearns Lake. Last year, the Bald Eagles moved to a nesting tree south of Stearns Lake. This year, they’re nesting just southwest of the lake, much closer to the trail that leads you along the lake’s south and east shore.

The Bald Eagle that scared off the flock of geese wasn’t one of the adults in the nesting pair. By plumage, it appeared to be a second or third year individual. We watched as it headed straight for the eagle nest tree after flushing the geese. It was then promptly chased off by the adult male. We watched as the young individual approached the nest tree multiple times before being chased off again and again.

As we worked our way along the lake’s south shore, we practiced our waterfowl identification (ID) skills. We spotted a lone Gadwall, several Mallards, a Bufflehead pair, two pairs of Ruddy Ducks, and a Horned Grebe. The cerulean blue bill of male Ruddy Ducks in breeding plumage always rank high on the “wow-index”. We also discussed the distinct profile of Ruddy Ducks in the water –  small body, scoop-shaped bill, and stiff tail often cocked upward.

The Horned Grebe offered another ID challenge. Both Horned and Eared Grebes had been reported in Boulder County recently. In poor light or from a distance, it can be challenging to tell the two species apart. Both are small and compact with black heads and showy head feathers. Neck color in breeding plumage differs between the two species, though. The Horned Grebe has a cinnamon neck and the Eared Grebe a black neck. Again, the setting sun

Killdeer. Photo by Sheridan Samano.

provided ideal lighting to see the cinnamon neck of this Horned Grebe through the spotting scope.

Other highlights of our walk included a pair of American Kestrels, our smallest and most common falcon “pair bonding”, a Great Blue Heron stalking prey in the lake’s shallows, and a Killdeer in beautiful Golden Hour lighting.

As the days continue to get longer in the coming weeks, consider taking an evening bird walk. It’s a wonderful way to end the day.

eBird Checklist – 20 Species

 
Snow Goose
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Gadwall
Mallard
Bufflehead
Ruddy Duck
Horned Grebe
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
Killdeer
Great Blue Heron
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Black-billed Magpie
European Starling
American Robin
Western Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle

 

Front Range Birding Company’s blog readers get 10% of Best Birding Hikes – Colorado’s Front Range. Enter discount code FRBC at check out.