Hudson Gardens, July 25 – with Chuck Aid

Wood Duck – juvenile male (c) Bill Schmoker

We had a beautiful morning at Hudson Gardens, and managed to see a variety of fun stuff.  For starters we had two groups of juvenile Wood Ducks for a total of six females and one male.  The juvenile male can be distinguished from the females by his bright white “bridle,” a feature that persists on the males into adulthood. Adult males, of course, are among the most colorful birds in North America but we, unfortunately, saw no adults. On the other hand, we did see a slew of adult male Mallards, all of which were in eclipse plumage, which occurs at this time of year when the males acquire the same camouflage as the females and can only be distinguished by their yellow bill (female bills are orange and black).  This is a nice adaptation for the males because they can actually become flightless for a few weeks and to be less visible is a nice protective strategy.  The deal is that while most birds replace old feathers with new ones a few at a time, ducks shed all of their outer feathers when they molt, including their wing feathers.  Part of the “reason” behind all this is that ducks prepare for the coming breeding season much earlier than most other birds and have all of their bright colors again in the fall in time for the onset of the ducky dating season.  As I mentioned during the walk, winter birding can be a fun time for newbie birders because the ducks are easy to see and have their breeding plumage.  Also, we have a far greater variety of ducks in the winter – up to twenty species – than we do in the summer.

Snowy Egret (c) Bill Schmoker

We also had a nice variety of other waterfowl, including Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Great Blue Heron, and Snowy Egret.  While the Snowy and Great Egret, which also occurs in Colorado, are superficially alike, the Snowy can be distinguished by its all black bill and “golden slippers.” Incidentally, for you more advanced birders, distinguishing between these two in flight can be a bit tricky, but the underneath belly and neck of the Snowy are in a flat plane while the neck of the Great Egret bulges downward.

Prairie Falcon (c) Bill Schmoker

A real bonus for the morning was getting to see four raptor species: a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk which could be identified as such by its multi-banded tail and its juvenile “squeal” calls, an Osprey, a Turkey Vulture (actually more closely related to storks than to the raptors, but because of their strong superficial resemblance to hawks and eagles they continue to be included as a raptor in our field guides), and a Prairie Falcon.  A bit more about this last bird – it could be initially identified as a falcon because of its pointed wings and long tail.  Much of the rest of the identification was based on behavior.  It flew with continual strong, snappy, stiff-winged, shallow wing beats with no gliding, and was very fast and purposeful in its direct flight. This flight behavior and the bird’s apparent large size made it likely that our bird was a Prairie Falcon.  The light brown coloration in the back helped to confirm that it was not a similarly-sized Peregrine Falcon.

Finally, we had great looks at a number of Cedar Waxwings.  These guys are glorious, and we certainly appreciated the show.

Hope to see you on another walk soon!
Chuck

Hudson Gardens, July 25
30 species (+1 other taxa)

Canada Goose  80
Wood Duck  7
Mallard  23
Mourning Dove  3
Broad-tailed Hummingbird  2
hummingbird sp.  1
Ring-billed Gull  2
Double-crested Cormorant  5
American White Pelican  1
Great Blue Heron  2
Snowy Egret  4
Turkey Vulture  1
Osprey  1
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Belted Kingfisher  1
Northern Flicker  12
Prairie Falcon  1 
Blue Jay  3
Black-capped Chickadee  12
Northern Rough-winged Swallow  10
Barn Swallow  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  6
House Wren  3
American Robin  8
Cedar Waxwing  12
House Finch  86
Lesser Goldfinch  1
American Goldfinch  3
Chipping Sparrow  2
Red-winged Blackbird  11
Yellow Warbler  2

Meyer Ranch, July 11- with Chuck Aid

Savannah Sparrow (c) BillSchmoker

One of the best things about the Meyer Ranch area is that it sits at the headwaters of South Turkey Creek where there is a vast sub-irrigated meadow that gradually forms a small stream bordered by willows and alders.  There are parts of this area that actually form wetlands where there are cattails. This combo of wet-meadow, cattails, and riparian vegetation can be great for certain birds including:  Mallard, Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow Warbler, and MacGillivray’s Warbler.  And, then moving up into the drier portions of the meadow there can be Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Mountain Bluebird, and Lark Sparrow.  The sky above all this can often have a good variety of swallow species.

Cliff Swallow (c) Bill Schmoker

This past Saturday we got a bit of a flavor of this diversity of birds, but the meadow is drier than it has been in years past, and numbers were down a bit.  Also, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) in anticipation of possible repairs to the US-285 overpass continues to remove partially built Cliff Swallow nests so that the swallows cannot actually get to the point of laying eggs.  The point of this is that disturbing an active nest is against the law, and CDOT cannot do repairs in an area with active nests.  The bad part of this is that they don’t really know when a bridge may need repairs, so they just remove the partially built nests in an attempt, from their perspective, to be proactive.  As a result, on Saturday we were treated to only one Cliff Swallow. In the years 2016, 2017, and 2018, years in which the nests were undisturbed, the Front Range Birding Company recorded 40, 35, and 60 Cliff Swallows, respectively.

Brown-headed Cowbird (c) Bill Schmoker

So, what else did we see? Highlights included recently fledged Downy Woodpecker (red on top of the head), American Crow (juvenile being fed), Mountain Chickadee (fluffy and doofy), Chipping Sparrow (stripey), and Brown-headed Cowbird (Baby Huey, because they can be huge compared to their parasitized host).  This last one can provide a good identification challenge, and we got great looks from less than ten feet away and it still was a stumper for most everybody.

 

MacGillivray’s Warbler (c) Bill Schmoker

Perhaps the best bird of the morning was a single male MacGillvray’s Warbler.  The preferred habitat for these guys is a thick tangle of understory shrubs, often along drainages, but they will set up shop in drier areas where there is sufficient thick foliage.  They also seem to need some sort of overstory of taller shrubs or trees.  The fact that they are skulkers within this preferred habitat tends to make getting a good look a definite challenge.  However, once you get that good look, you’ll become a real Mac Warbler fan for life, as they are exceedingly handsome.  We were very fortunate in getting a reasonably good look at our guy.

Good birding!
Chuck

Meyer Ranch Open Space, July 11, 2020
34 species

Mourning Dove  1
Broad-tailed Hummingbird  9
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Downy Woodpecker  3
Hairy Woodpecker (Rocky Mts.)  2
Cordilleran Flycatcher  2
Warbling Vireo  2
American Crow  5
Common Raven  5
Mountain Chickadee  10
Tree Swallow  6
Violet-green Swallow  2
Barn Swallow  1
Cliff Swallow  1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  4
Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  2
Pygmy Nuthatch  12
House Wren  2
Hermit Thrush  1
American Robin  8
Red Crossbill  1
Pine Siskin  5
Chipping Sparrow  10
Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed)  2
Savannah Sparrow  2
Song Sparrow  3
Lincoln’s Sparrow  1
Green-tailed Towhee  1
Red-winged Blackbird  4
Brown-headed Cowbird  2
MacGillivray’s Warbler  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s)  2
Western Tanager  3

 

Hudson Gardens, June 27 – with Chuck Aid

This was the first bird walk I’ve led since back in early March.  There were nine of us counting me, and we all adhered to strict corvid guidelines: masks, distancing, no shared spotting scope, etc.  I thought it went well, and I felt fortunate to have had a good cooperative group.

Song Sparrow (c) Bill Schmoker

So, first of all, what did we fail to see?  Well, probably a lot of things, but what struck me the most is that we had no Canada Geese, Wood Ducks, raptors, Belted Kingfishers, or Bushtits. These tend to be regularly occurring species at the Gardens, but we whiffed on ‘em this time. I was particularly disappointed that we didn’t get to see any Wood Ducks as they have been regular breeders on the long turtle pond the last few years.

For the most part we saw species that we can expect to see in the area, and we focused on the vocalizations of a few of these.  Song Sparrows are common and widespread across all of North America and are found year-round here in Colorado most commonly in moist shrubby habitats.  As with all the Passerines, that is the birds that take up roughly the second half of your field guide, Song Sparrows have a “call” that they do throughout the year (some say it is akin to the bark of a Chihuahua) – first recording below, and then they have a “”song” that is heard primarily during breeding season (territoriality and attracting a mate) – second recording.

Yellow Warbler (c) Bill Schmoker

Another bird that we heard singing a lot were the Yellow Warblers.  As they are neotropical migrants, they are only here in Colorado from May through mid-September.  Their call is a simple “chip” note, while their song tends to be a version of “sweet-sweet-sweet-little more sweet.”

Downy Woodpecker (c) Bill Schmoker

Also, one other bird we heard was the diminutive Downy Woodpecker which is found year-round in Colorado. It has a couple of calls; one is a sharp “pik” note, but the one we heard a few times was the descending whinny.

Gray Catbird (c) Bill Schmoker

Finally, we had three rather special encounters for the morning.  First, we got to see a family of four Say’s Phoebes hanging out together – three on top of same electrical box.  Then, we had a pair of Gray Catbirds meowing.  And, finally, we had a troop of Cedar Waxwings who literally came within a few feet of us, and we got great looks of the red-tipped wings and beautiful yellow-tipped tail.  They are quite an eyeful!

Just a quick reminder that my favorite field guide for our area is The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, which you can buy at the Front Range Birding Company (303-979-2473). Sibley also has a great app – Sibley Birds 2ndEdition, which has a nice variety of vocalizations as well as the other info found in the field guide.

Oops!  One more thing: a Canada Goose egg is 86 x 58 mm, Great Blue Heron is 65 x 46 mm, and a Mallard is 58 x 42 mm.

Good birding!
Chuck

Hudson Gardens, Jun 27, 2020
33 species

Mallard  16
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  1
Eurasian Collared-Dove  1
Mourning Dove  4
Double-crested Cormorant  7
American White Pelican  8
Great Blue Heron  1
Snowy Egret  1
Downy Woodpecker  3
Northern Flicker  9
Western Wood-Pewee  2
Say’s Phoebe  4
Warbling Vireo  1
Blue Jay  1
Black-billed Magpie  1
Black-capped Chickadee  12
Tree Swallow  3
Barn Swallow  5
Cliff Swallow  15
White-breasted Nuthatch  2
House Wren  2
Gray Catbird  2
American Robin  17
Cedar Waxwing  11
House Finch  4
Lesser Goldfinch  1
American Goldfinch  5
Song Sparrow  3
Bullock’s Oriole  3
Red-winged Blackbird  14
Brown-headed Cowbird  3
Common Grackle  10
Yellow Warbler  17

Walden/Sawhill Ponds Complex, March 14th – with Stephen Chang

The Saturday of March 14th, I led a group of 7 on a chilly morning to Walden Ponds wildlife habitat for our monthly birdwalk. We won’t be having another walk until, at the earliest, May 9th (maybe later), but we made the most of our last walk by observing 31 different species! Highlights included at least four different Bald Eagles (two adults and two juveniles), the area’s winter resident Harlan’s Hawk, and a very cooperative Northern Shrike.

Northern Shrike (c) Sibylle Hechtel

 

Northern Shrikes are a winter visitor here to the front range, but they breed up in the arctic tundra/taiga. Shrikes are our only predatory songbird, and during the winter the Northern Shrike will eat mostly other small songbirds and small rodents. In arid, open habitats across the front range, the Northern Shrike is replaced by the Loggerhead Shrike in the summer. They will eat small birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects.

Loggerhead Shrike (c) Jamie Simo

 

Our full eBird checklist can be found here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S65787632 

 

There is still plenty of migration to be had, so be sure to get out and look at some birds. Spending time in our natural areas is a easy way to practice social distancing. Happy Spring and be well!

Best,

Stephen Chang

Wheat Ridge Greenbelt, March 7 – with Chuck Aid

Northern Shoveler (c) Bill Schmoker

Weather-wise we had a beautiful day at the Wheat Ridge Greenbelt.  Interestingly enough, it did not translate into a slew of birds.  We had a reasonable number of species – thirty, but the overall number of individual birds was not great.  And, I had a comparable birding day on Friday. It seems that with this good weather some birds may be feeling inclined to do a migratory step north and have left the area, e.g. Northern Shovelers who have been around in the hundreds, and perhaps other birds are not feeling too stressed about food so they’re less active. I’m curious to see if the next round of inclement weather will cause an increased surge in bird activity.  There’s always something to be learning more about with this avian world.  I just try not to get paranoid about a temporary decrease in numbers really reflecting the overall decline in birds that we know is going on.

Gadwall (c) Bill Schmoker

So, as for the birds we did see, they are all looking spectacular in their breeding plumage.  We had wonderful close looks at Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and Hooded Merganser.  Glorious! And there were several hints as to the onset of breeding season – Gadwall and Mallards doing a bit of courtship behavior, Double-crested Cormorants starting to build and occupy their nests on the Tabor Lake island, and House Finches singing their wonderful song.

We also had a couple of interesting raptor observations.  Red-tailed Hawks are found in Colorado throughout the year and in recent weeks they’ve been busy finding mates, building nests, and in some cases even starting to incubate eggs.  We might start to see nests with young by the middle of April – the incubation period is roughly 30-33 days.  On our walk we had one pass right over us a couple of times so that we got excellent looks, and I want to reiterate some of the field marks we discussed. 

Red-tailed Hawk (c) Bill Schmoker

First of all, Red-tails belong to the group of hawks known as Buteos – these are the large soaring hawks and include Ferruginous and Swainson’s Hawks.  Buteos are medium to large robust hawks that hunt primarily while soaring.  Their wings are long and broad, and their tail is relatively short.  Red-tails have a huge variety of plumages but there are a few characteristics that are almost always present.  The wings tend to be more truncated and rounded than the other Buteos, and they have distinctive “bulging” secondaries causing the wings closer to the body to look even broader than those of the other Buteos.  Also, to varying degrees all Red-tails have a dark leading-edge of the wing (the patagium).  An interesting behavioral characteristic is that, when coming in to perch, Red-tails tend to fly in low and swoop up to the perch at the last moment.

Prairie Falcon (c) Rob Raker

Our other raptor of note was a Prairie Falcon which showed several characteristics leading to our being able to identify it.  It flew by going low and fast, the pointed wings flapped rapidly, stiffly, shallowly, and without pause.  It appeared only slightly smaller than a Red-tail but was more svelte (they weigh about two-thirds as much).  Finally, the real clincher was that it had black axillaries (armpits), which is diagnostic.

We are now only about a month out from the onslaught of Spring migration, and someone locally, as hard as it is to believe, has already reported a Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Also, Mountain Bluebirds are back in the area.

So, get your hummingbird feeders all set, and make sure you’ve got some binoculars that work.  Good optics make a world of difference!

Chuck

Wheat Ridge Greenbelt, Mar 7, 2020
30 species

Canada Goose  55
Northern Shoveler  18
Gadwall  50
American Wigeon  3
Mallard  35
Green-winged Teal  28
Redhead  1
Ring-necked Duck  2
Bufflehead  1
Common Goldeneye  3
Hooded Merganser  3
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  8
Virginia Rail  2
American Coot  18
Killdeer  1
Ring-billed Gull  50
Double-crested Cormorant  30
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Belted Kingfisher  1
Downy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  4
Prairie Falcon  1
Blue Jay  1
Black-billed Magpie  1
American Crow  2
Black-capped Chickadee  12
American Robin  3
House Finch  9
Song Sparrow  3
Red-winged Blackbird  11

Hudson Gardens, Feb 29 – with Chuck Aid

Green-winged Teal (c) Bill Schmoker

The weather forecast for Saturday said it should get up to about 62 degrees.  It may have eventually gotten that warm, but it was far from it at 8 AM. Fortunately, we had a fair amount of bird activity to help keep us warm.  We began by checking out the pond immediately behind the Welcome Center, and were rewarded by a pair of Gadwall, a few Mallards and Canada Geese, and four male Green-winged Teal.  Then, in the next pond over we could see a couple of male Northern Shovelers.  This brings me to an interesting aspect of our morning.  We ended up seeing nine species of ducks, six of these were heavily dominated by males. We saw no female Shovelers or Green-winged Teal, 90% of our Mallards were males, and all of our Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneyes, and Hooded Mergansers were males.  The only species with a semblance of balance were the Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Bufflehead.  Not sure where the girls were but given the rough treatment one female Mallard was receiving, we can imagine that for good reason many of them were not ready to hang out with the boys.

Lesser Scaup (c) Bill Schmoker

There was also a single American Coot on the river which has a superficial resemblance to the ducks, but rather than having webbed feet, it has long lobed toes and a stout, conical bill. 

We had one mystery raptor flying low and fast behind some trees.  At the time I identified it as a Prairie Falcon, but upon further thought I think it was probably a Cooper’s Hawk.  Both of these birds have long tails and fly powerfully with shallow, stiff, wingbeats; however, the Prairie Falcon flaps more consistently, and the Cooper’s Hawk has a flap-flap-flap-glide pattern.  While I did not get a great look at our bird and even thought that it might have had the pointed wings of a falcon, I did see this classic Cooper’s Hawk flight pattern, and base my final identification largely on that.

Hairy Woodpecker (c) Bill Schmoker

We also had a nice mix of finches and sparrows, many of whom were singing.  This included many House Finches, a single American Goldfinch, a nice mix of Dark-eyed Juncos, a single White-crowned Sparrow, a single Song Sparrow, and a single Spotted Towhee.

Perhaps the highlight of the morning was the woodpeckers.  We ended up with six Downy Woodpeckers, getting great looks at almost all of them, and then we had a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers.  These last are primarily resident in the foothills and mountains and only rarely make it out onto the eastern plains or into urban areas.  So, it is rare to see one in the city, and even more rare to see a male and female together, and even exhibiting some obvious pair-bonding.

Good birding!
Chuck Aid

Hudson Gardens, Arapahoe, Colorado, US
Feb 29, 2020
33 species (+2 other taxa)

Canada Goose  90
Northern Shoveler  2
Gadwall  12
American Wigeon  2
Mallard  23
Green-winged Teal  4
Lesser Scaup  2
Bufflehead  6
Common Goldeneye  1
Hooded Merganser  1
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  2
Eurasian Collared-Dove  4
American Coot  1
Ring-billed Gull  7
Cooper’s Hawk  1
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Downy Woodpecker  6
Hairy Woodpecker  2
Northern Flicker  5
Blue Jay  2
Black-billed Magpie  1
American Crow  1
Black-capped Chickadee  14
Bushtit  4
European Starling  2
American Robin  11
House Finch  14
American Goldfinch  1
Dark-eyed Junco  5
Dark-eyed Junco (Pink-sided)  2
Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed)  2
White-crowned Sparrow  1
Song Sparrow  1
Spotted Towhee  1
Red-winged Blackbird  7

South Platte Park, Feb 1 – with Chuck Aid

Belted Kingfisher – female (c) Nona Radin

Another fun-filled bird walk with mild winter weather! Yahoo!  We started at the pond immediately north of the Front Range Birding Company along Remmington Ave.  Here, we got good close looks at a slew of Cackling Geese, a variety of ducks, and two individuals that I want to spend a bit more time on.  First, we had a Belted Kingfisher, that I misidentified as a first-year bird.  There were two things wrong with that assessment.  First of all, there are no juvenile kingfishers in mid-winter as they have acquired their adult plumage by October – I just didn’t think it through properly. Second of all, I was wrong about what I thought I saw with regard to our bird’s plumage. 

 

 

Common Goldeneye x Hooded Merganser – hybrid (c) Nona Radin

So, let’s get straight about Belted Kingfishers.  The male has a single gray upper breast-band, the female has the same gray band as the male PLUS a second rusty-colored breast-band lower down and a bit of the same rusty coloring in the flanks, and the juvenile is just like the female except the rusty breast-band is broken in the middle and does not extend all the way across.  In looking at the photo you can see that our bird was an adult female.  The second bird I want to bring to your attention was a hybrid Common Goldeneye x Hooded Merganser.  Though rare, these guys do occur with some regularity.

Hooded Merganser pair (c) Nona Radin

We then spent the majority of the morning visiting various ponds in the vicinity of South Platte Park.  Among the highlights were several pods of Northern Shovelers swirling around and creating a vortex to bring food up to the surface of the water.  We also saw an interesting convocation of over forty Buffleheads in one group.  And, we had great looks at a male American Kestrel, our smallest falcon.

American Pipit – winter (c) Jeff Jaacks

Our group began to dissipate around eleven o’clock, and several folks missed out on one of the more interesting birds of the morning – an American Pipit.  These small, slender, migratory birds are rather inconspicuous looking, occurring throughout North America and as far south as El Salvador.  They belong to an elite group of ground-inhabiting songbirds that breed in both alpine and arctic tundra, and here in Colorado they can be a fairly common summer resident above timberline.  In the winter, though, they are rather uncommon, being found occasionally along sandy shorelines of ice-free rivers, which is exactly where our bird was on Saturday. 

American Pipit – summer Colorado (c) Bill Schmoker

Back to the appearance of the American Pipit. David Sibley, well-known ornithologist and author/illustrator of many bird fields guides, has described the American Pipit as possibly “the most variably-colored songbird on the continent.”  This does not mean a lot of bright colors, just that within their inconspicuous subtle coloring there is a lot of variation.  Some of this can be ascribed to differences between the four main subspecies of American Pipit, which can generally be distinguished from one another based on the amount of yellow vs pink on the breast and belly, the darkness vs lightness of the legs, the extensiveness and boldness of the breast streaking, and the whiteness of the supercilium (eyebrow) and maIar (whisker).  In looking at the two photos here, our Saturday bird had faint yellow on the belly, bold streaking on the breast, and strikingly white supercilium and malar, making it I believe a member of the eastern subspecies (Anthus rubescens rubescens), while the other picture shows a Colorado breeder with hardly any of the characteristics mentioned above, making it a member of the Rocky Mountain subspecies (Anthus rubescens alticola).  However, I’m getting way over my head here, and haven’t even mentioned seasonal molt differences.  Finally, Sibley contends that much of this variation could simply be due to differences between individual birds. 

What a nice engaging pastime it is trying to always learn just a little bit more about our avian friends. 

See you on another walk soon!
Chuck

South Platte Park, Feb 1, 2020
29 species

Cackling Goose  500
Canada Goose  30
Northern Shoveler  200
Gadwall  12
American Wigeon  8
Mallard  39
Green-winged Teal  26
Ring-necked Duck  17
Lesser Scaup  16
Bufflehead  60
Common Goldeneye  34
Hooded Merganser  17
Common Goldeneye x Hooded Merganser (hybrid) 1
Common Merganser  4
Pied-billed Grebe  1
Rock Pigeon 16
Killdeer  5
Ring-billed Gull  5
Great Blue Heron  1
Bald Eagle  1
Red-tailed Hawk  4
Belted Kingfisher  3
Northern Flicker  2
American Kestrel  1
Black-billed Magpie  1
American Crow  8
Black-capped Chickadee  2
American Pipit  1
House Finch  4
Red-winged Blackbird  2

Hudson Gardens, January 25 – with Chuck Aid

Great Blue Heron (c) Nona Radin

A chilly morning gradually changed over to a delightfully mild late morning, and we had a great walk going upstream from Hudson Gardens, even included a brief detour up Lee Gulch where an American Dipper had been recently reported.  We whiffed on the Dipper, but did get great views of a number of other birds.

Cackling Geese (c) Nona Radin

For starters, we had a nice mix of Cackling Geese and Canada Geese out on the South Platte.  Generally speaking, there are four main characteristics that can be used in differentiating these very similar “white-cheeked” geese.  However, complications arise because there are roughly six subspecies of Cackling Goose and eleven subspecies of Canada Goose, all of which vary slightly in size, coloration, and shape.  The first, and perhaps most import characteristic, is the bill size, its shape, and its length, as compared to the width of the side of the head.  Compared to Canada Geese the bills of Cackling Geese are shorter, closer to being an equilateral triangular shape, and their length is about 50% (or less) of the width of the side of the head.  Overall, Cacklers are smaller (3.1 – 6.6 lbs), while Canada Geese are bigger (5.7 14.3 lbs).  Cacklers tend to have shorter, thicker necks.  And, finally, there are some subtle differences in plumages, e.g. some Cackler subspecies have darker breasts, some have a white neck-ring, and some have a grayish sheen on their back.  On Saturday we got good looks at both species, and started to work towards getting a little more tuned in to all these differences.

Pied-billed Grebe (c) Bill Schmoker

Another waterbird of interest that we saw was a Pied-billed Grebe.  “Pied” means having two or more different colors, and the name derives from their bill, during breeding season, being white with a distinct black band. Grebes are not ducks, as they have lobed toes, not webbed feet, to assist them in diving.  However, for the most part they don’t have to dive to go under water; they can simply adjust their buoyancy such that they can float with differing amounts of their body above the water, or they can simply slowly submerge themselves with hardly a ripple.

Buffleheads (c) Nona Radin

We also had six species of ducks on the river, and we got to really delve into their identification – working on telling the males from the females, and what the main plumage characteristics were.  One of these challenges had to do with telling first-year male Buffleheads from adult females (get out your field guides).  In looking at the photo notice how much bigger the adult male is.  Males tend to be about 1-3″ longer than the females, and weigh about 4 ounces more, so I’m saying that what we saw were females, but I am not confident in doing so.  

Greater Scaup (c) Nona Radin

The highlight of the ducks was getting to see a small flock of twelve Greater Scaup fly in and land right in front of us on the river. This is a rare to uncommon species on the eastern plains near the foothills, and we were quite fortunate to get excellent looks.  On the males we were able to note their bright white flanks, thick neck, head sloping towards the rear and long from bill to nape and smoothly rounded (no hint of the peaky head that characterizes the Lesser Scaup – a far more common winter duck), broad black nail on the tip of bill, eye not centered in head – but higher and more forward, BIG jowls, and some green noted in the head coloring. On the females we noted the extensive white behind bills.  Also, fortunately, one of our participants, Nona Radin, took some great photos.

Greater Scaup (c) Nona Radin

Finally, some of us got good looks at a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet traveling with a little flock of Black-capped Chickadees.  This diminutive bird with its tiny bill is a common summer resident up in the mountains, but it is a rare to uncommon winter resident on the eastern plains near the foothills.

So, though we only recorded 23 species, we got great looks at some really special birds – not to mention three muskrats.  Hope you can join us on a future Hudson Gardens bird walk, or check out the walks being offered on the first Saturday of each month by the Front Range Birding Company – call 303-979-2473 for more info and to sign up for a walk.

Good birding,
Chuck

Hudson Gardens, Jan 25, 2020
23 species

Cackling Goose  80
Canada Goose  300
Gadwall  11
Mallard  35
Green-winged Teal  9
Greater Scaup  12
Bufflehead  13
Common Goldeneye  6
Pied-billed Grebe  1
Killdeer  1
Ring-billed Gull  1
Great Blue Heron  1
Belted Kingfisher  1
Northern Flicker  7
Blue Jay  1
Black-billed Magpie  3
American Crow  4
Black-capped Chickadee  8
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Red-breasted Nuthatch  2
House Finch  14
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon)  1
Red-winged Blackbird  4

Milavec Reservoir, Jan 11, 2020–with Jamie Simo

Cackling Goose (left) vs Canada Goose (right) (c) Jamie Simo

Milavec Reservoir in Frederick, CO is one of the best places along the Front Range to see all the possible (read: non-rare) interior goose species. Sometimes, like last year, it even plays host to some rarities like the Colorado-record Pink-footed Goose and Barnacle Goose. As hoped for, while we didn’t see any Colorado-record geese on this frigid, but sunny, Saturday morning, we did see all the usual goose suspects. We also had some great ducks and raptors.

Nearly all Coloradans are familiar with our only breeding goose species, the Canada Goose, but winter brings migrant Cackling, Greater White-fronted, Ross’s, and Snow Geese from the arctic to our lakes, reservoirs, and fields. The most similar to the Canada Goose, the Cackling Goose was only recognized as a species in its own right in 2004. There are 4 subspecies of Cackling Goose varying in size and color, but some of the common characteristics include smaller body size than the majority of Canada Geese (there may be some overlap with the smallest subspecies of Canada Goose), a shorter neck, and a bill that looks “stubby” because of a more rounded or square head shape. Because of the difficulty of distinguishing between the smallest subspecies of Canada Goose and the largest subspecies of Cackling Goose, small white-cheeked geese are sometimes referred to as “Cackling-ish.”

Ross’s Goose (foreground) vs Snow Goose (background) (c) Jamie Simo

Like the Canada Goose, the Snow Goose also has a “mini-me” doppleganger, the Ross’s Goose, but that doppleganger is much easier to pick out than the Cackling Goose. Firstly, Snow Geese come in either the expected white plumage with black wingtips or a darker, grey-blue body plumage with white head and neck. Both have pink bills and feet as adults. The latter is sometimes referred to as a “blue goose, “blue morph,” or “blue phase” Snow Goose. There are only 2 subspecies of Snow Goose, but both have a black “grin patch” that gives them a sneering appearance, and a sloping forehead. By contrast, the Ross’s Goose, which is usually white but also occurs rarely in a blue phase, has a steep forehead leading to a rounded crown and lacks the grin patch.

The final expected goose species in Colorado is the Greater White-fronted Goose. This goose is mostly brownish-grey with darker belly bands, orange legs and bill, and white feathers around the base of the bill from which is gets its name.

Other stand-out species were 2 adult Bald Eagles, a Northern Harrier, a Red-breasted Merganser, a female Canvasback, and even a coyote. Not bad for a cold, January morning!

Female Northern Harrier (c) Chris Friedman

Frederick Lake (Milavec Reservoir) & Recreation Area, Jan 11, 2020
25 species

8 Snow Goose
3 Ross’s Goose
1 Greater White-fronted Goose
2000 Cackling Goose
4000 Canada Goose
60 Northern Shoveler
10 Mallard
1 Canvasback
7 Lesser Scaup
3 Bufflehead
20 Common Goldeneye
7 Common Merganser
1 Red-breasted Merganser
1 Ruddy Duck
3 American Coot
1 Northern Harrier
2 Bald Eagle
1 Red-tailed Hawk
1 American Kestrel
1 Blue Jay
6 European Starling
6 American Tree Sparrow
1 White-crowned Sparrow (Gambel’s)
2 Song Sparrow
1 Red-winged Blackbird

Harriman Lake, Jan 4 – with Chuck Aid

Rough-legged Hawk topography (c) Bill Schmoker

Nice mild weather prevailed on Saturday as we enjoyed a 1.6-mile stroll around Harriman Lake.  It was more than half frozen over, but that was perfect as it concentrated all the ducks a bit more and provided a nice shelf of ice for a local immature Bald Eagle.  In order to talk a bit more about plumages of Bald Eagles we need to learn a bit more about bird topography.  If you will look at the diagram, you can see that the coverts are the smaller feathers that cover the bases of the larger flight feathers – the primaries and secondaries.  There are upper-wing coverts and underwing coverts.  There are also upper and lower tail coverts that cover the bases of the main flight feathers in the tail.  I’ve labeled two other parts because they can be important terms for the identification of other raptors.  The carpal is the “wrist” of the bird, and some birds, such as the Rough-legged Hawk in this photo have a distinct carpal patch.  The patagium is the leading edge of the wing, and this can be important because to varying degrees all Red-tailed Hawks have a dark patagium.

Bald Eagle – 2nd year (c) Bill Schmoker

So, back to our Bald Eagle. It takes Bald Eagles five years to obtain their full adult plumage with the white head and tail.  During their first year they have dark brown eyes, a dark bill, and are mostly brownish overall.  During subsequent years the eyes become light brown and eventually yellow, the bill too becomes increasingly yellow.  The plumage during the intermediate years can be quite variable but tends toward a brown and white mish-mash.  For example, a first-year bird tends to have a brown belly with white underwing coverts; most second-year birds develop a white belly with extensive white underwing coverts and some white in the underwing secondaries and tail; third-year birds tend to have darker bellies than second-year birds and the underwings, while still having some white blotchiness, are darker; fourth-year birds are tending towards full adulthood with a blackish-brown belly having some white flecking, and the hood and tail are mostly white but not completely. Our bird on Saturday was a second-year Bald Eagle, much like the bird in the photo but with more white above the eye. To cut to the chase, second-year birds have more white on the body and underwings than any other year.

Best of luck with all your upcoming raptor identifications!

Chuck

 

Harriman Lake, Jan 4, 2020
26 species

Canada Goose  125
American Wigeon  12
Mallard  7
Canvasback  2
Redhead  44
Ring-necked Duck  1
Lesser Scaup  2
Bufflehead  6
Common Goldeneye  4
Hooded Merganser  15
Common Merganser  1
Pied-billed Grebe  4
Eurasian Collared-Dove  1
American Coot  160
Ring-billed Gull  3
Bald Eagle  2 (1 adult and 1 2nd-year)
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Northern Flicker  4
Blue Jay  7
Black-billed Magpie  6
American Crow  4
Common Raven  1
Black-capped Chickadee  2
European Starling  7
Song Sparrow  3
Red-winged Blackbird  40