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.

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

Walden Ponds, February 27th–Sheridan Samano

Walden Ponds, Sawhill Ponds and Boulder Creek – February 27, 2021 – with Sheridan Samano

Last Saturday morning, there was enough interest for two different bird walks at the Walden Ponds/ Sawhill Ponds Complex in Boulder. Both groups met at Cottonwood Marsh, but with different start times and routes. The avian highlights varied substantially between the two walks.

To start, the 8 am group noticed several male Red-winged Blackbirds displaying and singing in the cattails on the south side of the marsh. It won’t be long before we see an influx of even more males and females as spring progresses and breeding season is in full swing.

From Cottonwood Marsh, we headed to the northwest corner of Duck Pond where the group started practicing their duck ID skills. In winter, ducks showcase their fine-feathered breeding plumage so this time of year offers excellent opportunities to learn how to distinguish between common species in the area. At Duck Pond, we found Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, Gadwalls, American Wigeon, and Mallards. As we watched the various individuals from the same species, we noticed that members of the same species tend to move together in groups. Female ducks are harder to distinguish, but they’re often traveling with male counterparts. Those observations can help birders ID ducks on future outings.

Each pond we passed offered a different collection of waterfowl so we had several opportunities to practice telling species apart. Finding a large group of male Green-winged Teal in a large pond north of Duck Pond, the smallest dabbling duck in North America, was a highlight for everyone. Green-winged Teal are often found at shallow edges of ponds. They often walk along muddy edges, too.

By the time the second walk started at 10:15 am, the skies were clearing and it was much warmer. These conditions favored raptor activity so the focus of the second walk shifted from examining ponds to searching perches and the sky overhead.

An adult Bald Eagle perched noticeably on a tower east of Cottonwood Marsh greeted the group. This individual was likely from the pair that nests east of 75th Street. We could see the second half of the pair at the nest tree.

Instead of heading due west from Cottonwood Marsh as we did during the first walk, we headed north towards Boulder Creek. On the west side of Cottonwood Marsh, we spotted a male American Kestrel perched on a stump with his back to us. This view provided an opportunity to discuss coloration differences among the sexes of North America’s smallest falcon. Female Kestrels don’t have blue-gray wings like males. We got a second, better look at this male later in the walk.

Other raptor highlights during the second walk included multiple Red-tailed Hawks, a third year Bald Eagle, and a Golden Eagle. A member of our group mentioned she was hoping to see a Golden Eagle this morning so having one fly overhead at the end was an excellent way to end our morning of birding.

The Walden Ponds and Sawhill Ponds Complex is featured in Best Birding Hikes – Colorado’s Front Range. The Complex offers some of the best year-round birding opportunities in Boulder County. No matter the month, a birding outing here is sure to deliver.

22 Species Observed during 8 am Bird Walk (eBird Checklist)

Canada Goose – 13

Northern Shoveler – 5

Gadwall – 24

American Wigeon – 10

Mallard – 25

Green-winged Teal – 20

Ring-necked Duck – 6

Common Goldeneye – 1

Hooded Merganser – 30

Common Merganser – 10

Great Blue Heron – 8

Red-tailed Hawk – 2

Northern Flicker – 4

Blue Jay – 5

Black-billed Magpie – 2

American Crow – 1

Black-capped Chickadee – 8

European Starling – 2

American Robin – 2

House Finch – 2

Song Sparrow – 1

Red-winged Blackbird – 30

 

29 Species + 1 Other Taxa During 10:15 am Bird Walk (eBird Checklist)

Cackling Goose – 2

Canada Goose – 28

Cackling/Canada Goose – 90

Northern Shoveler – 2

Gadwall – 11

American Wigeon – 8

Mallard – 40

Green-winged Teal – 1

Ring-necked Duck – 10

Common Goldeneye – 1

Hooded Merganser – 14

Common Merganser – 5

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) – 8

Great Blue Heron – 1

Golden Eagle – 1

Bald Eagle – 3

Red-tailed Hawk – 4

Northern Flicker – 1

American Kestrel – 1

Blue Jay – 4

Black-billed Magpie – 1

Common Raven – 1

Black-capped Chickadee – 4

White-breasted Nuthatch – 1

European Starling – 6

American Robin – 1

House Finch – 3

Song Sparrow – 2

Red-winged Blackbird – 46

Yellow-rumped Warbler – 1

 

Sandstone Ranch, February 13–with Aron Smolley

 

American Tree Sparrow. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It was an honor and a pleasure to lead my first bird walk for Front Range Birding Company this morning. Although the temperatures never quite got above 4 degrees Farenheit, our small group had a fantastic time braving the elements in search of birds at Sandstone Ranch.

A lone American tree sparrow greeted us at the bottom of the hill, and we started off scanning the mostly frozen river for waterfowl, and mostly turned up Canada and Cackling geese as well as mallards, but we did get some great views of the local muskrat going about it’s day on the ice like it was no big deal. As soon as we crossed the first bridge we dicovered a pair of American kestrels, a male and female sitting side by side, feathers puffed up for warmth, and shortly after that we had a pair of red-tailed hawks soaring

Northern Pintail drake. Photo by Jamie Simo.

in the distance in what appeared to be early courtship behavior. An adult bald eagle sat perched next to a partially completed nest as black-billed magpies fluttered by.

Scanning the river we managed to turn up a few gadwall among the mallards, and a Northern pintail was a “lifer” for one of our participants. We also found some more bonus mammals- a small herd of white-tailed deer and a mink! A little further upstream we had a female hooded merganser ducking and diving beneath the icy water. At this point, we made a group decision to start making our way back to the parking lot, stopping occasionally for interesting waterfowl such as a common goldeneye, as well as some little brown birds that had to be left unidentified (I blame fogged-up, iced over binoculars and shivering hands!)

When we got back to the main trail we had a soul-satisfying view of an immature bald eagle that flew low and slow over our heads, and at that point my falcon senses started tingling so I started scanning the sandstone cliffs. To my delight, a prairie falcon (a lifer for ALL the partipants of this bird walk!) was perched in plain view at the edge of the cliff so we took a small detour so that everyone could get a closer look. The final bird of the day- a special bonus I might add- was a merlin that zipped by, giving us all of 3 seconds to confirm it’s identity before disappearing over the horizon. Our third falcon species and the perfect ending to a wonderful, albeit frigid, bird walk.

Here is our complete list of (confirmed) birds seen:
Canada goose-110

Merlin. Photo by Jamie Simo.

American crow- 17
Am. tree sparrow- 1
Mallard- 48
Cackling goose- 37
American kestrel- 2
Black-billed magpie- 3
Red-tailed hawk- 2
Gadwall- 4
Western meadowlark- 3
Northern pintail- 2
Bald eagle- 2
Hooded merganser- 1
Common goldeneye- 1
Prairie falcon- 1
Merlin- 1

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

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

 

 

Waneka Lake and Greenlee Preserve, March 9–with Jamie Simo and Special Guest Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd, birder extraordinaire

It was a beautiful, but blustery, morning when we set out for Wanaka Lake Park and Greenlee Preserve where we were joined by Lafayette resident and expert birder, Ted Floyd. The wind ended up being fortuitous because it broke up the thin skin of ice on Wanaka Lake. That meant we got to enjoy ducks and geese that would otherwise have been elsewhere, including Gadwall, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, a male Common Goldeneye, a group of Common Mergansers, and both Canada and Cackling Geese. The latter is distinguished from the former by their much smaller size, daintier bills, and stubby necks.

Cackling Goose (c) Jamie Simo

After surveying Waneka, Ted led us to Hecla Pond, which is a short walk from Waneka. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Lafayette, CO was a big coal mining town and Waneka Lake Park used to be the site of a power plant that operated from 1907 until 1957. There are remnants of this history in the large ore boulders we passed on our walk to Hecla. We spent a few minutes admiring the lichen growing on the surface of the boulders.

Though small, Hecla Pond was no less interesting than Waneka. We were able to get good looks at a pair of Hooded Mergansers and compare them to the larger, sleeker Commons we’d seen earlier. We added American Wigeon to our list for the day there, as well as Ring-necked Duck (named for the faint, almost invisible ring around its neck rather than the much more obvious ring around its bill!).

Cooper’s Hawk (c) Jamie Simo

The wind kept our numbers of songbirds down, but back at Greenlee Preserve we logged Red-winged Blackbirds, Dark-eyed Juncos, and American Robins. We even had a Cooper’s Hawk fly over us! Lafayette hosts bird walks at 1:00pm from Greenlee Preserve on the first Sunday of every month, so stop by if you’re in the area then.

Our final species count was 27:

Waneka Lake/Greenlee Preserve
Number of Taxa: 27
100 Cackling Goose
49 Canada Goose
5 Northern Shoveler
3 Gadwall
3 American Wigeon
14 Mallard
10 Ring-necked Duck
3 Common Goldeneye
2 Hooded Merganser
7 Common Merganser
4 Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
8 Eurasian Collared-Dove
1 Mourning Dove
32 Ring-billed Gull
1 Cooper’s Hawk
2 Red-tailed Hawk
5 Northern Flicker
4 American Crow
1 Common Raven
5 Black-capped Chickadee
7 American Robin
13 European Starling
27 House Finch
1 American Goldfinch
3 Dark-eyed Junco
3 Red-winged Blackbird
8 House Sparrow

Peschel Open Space, Dec 8 -with Jamie Simo

It was a cold, but clear morning when 9 intrepid birders set out for Peschel Open Space. Peschel is a hidden gem in the Weld County portion of Longmont near Sandstone Ranch. While the St. Vrain Greenway trail was heavily damaged by the devastating 2013 flood and parts of it only reopened earlier this year, the flood also created a lot of fantastic wetland habitat ideal for shorebirds and waterfowl.

Snow Goose (c) Photo by Jamie Simo

Things started off on a high note with a female American Kestrel and only went up from there. At some points the sky was nearly black and the air filled with the honking of geese attracted to the river, ponds, and nearby agricultural property that Peschel has to offer. In and among the thousands of Canada/Cackling Geese, we saw a dozen Snow Geese, including several juveniles and even a “blue morph.” 

Though Mallards were by far the most prevalent duck, there were also a scattering of American Wigeons, a few Green-winged Teal, and even 4 male Northern Pintails in their full glory.

Immature Bald Eagle (c) Photo by Jamie Simo

In addition to American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks were especially prevalent. We saw 6 different Red-tails. Other raptor highlights were the resident pair of Bald Eagles that made their appearance as we were heading back to the parking lot, 2 Northern Harriers, a Great Horned Owl roosting low in a tree, and a soaring Prairie Falcon.

While songbirds were in short supply this time of year, we did see several sparrow species (Song, American Tree, and White-crowned) and heard from resident species such as the Marsh Wren, Northern Flicker, and Blue Jay. The piece de resistance, however, was the American Pipit we saw picking around in the river near the bridge leading to Sandstone Ranch.

In all, we saw a total of 35 species, pretty good for an early winter day!

Peschel Open Space, December 8, 2018
35 species 

Snow Goose  12
Cackling/Canada Goose  2000
American Wigeon  22
Mallard  141
Northern Pintail  4
Green-winged Teal  3
Hooded Merganser  1
Ring-necked Pheasant  13
Eurasian Collared-Dove  11
Killdeer  5    
Ring-billed Gull  3
American White Pelican  8     
Great Blue Heron  3
Northern Harrier  2
Bald Eagle  3
Red-tailed Hawk  6
Great Horned Owl  1
Belted Kingfisher  2
Northern Flicker  2
American Kestrel  2
Prairie Falcon  1
Blue Jay  3
American Crow  4
Horned Lark  1
Black-capped Chickadee  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
Marsh Wren  1
European Starling  20
American Pipit  1    
American Goldfinch  2
American Tree Sparrow  1
White-crowned Sparrow  2
Song Sparrow  9
Western Meadowlark  3
Red-winged Blackbird  3

Hudson Gardens: March 31, 2018 with Jennifer O’Keefe & Chip Clouse

Our merry group of 27 birders ventured into Hudson Gardens and along the South Platter River on a brisk, beautiful day with plenty of sun. We spotted 25 species of birds during our 3-hour walk covering just under 2 miles.

We began by walking clockwise through Hudson Gardens, looking and listening for birds in the trees, on the ground, in the sky, and everywhere in between. American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds were both observed singing out in the open, giving us a great opportunity to associate the song with the bird.

Out along the South Platte trail, we saw many of the waterbirds we’d anticipate seeing this time of year such as Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal and Gadwall.

One exciting observation was a Northern Harrier behaving very un-Harrierlike. These medium-sized raptors with long tails and a distinctive white rump patch are most often seen flying low over grasslands or marshes. This behavior is explained by their habit of not only looking for its prey, but listening as well. The Northern Harrier we observed was soaring high in the sky, a behavior we typically expect from other raptors such as the Red-tailed Hawk. What a treat to see a bird exhibiting an unexpected behavior!

Female Northern Harrier @ Bill Schmoker

Another big highlight was a pair of nest-building Bushtits. These tiny gray birds are often seen in marauding flocks that descend upon your suet feeder and then disappear, often for weeks at a time. This time of year, they are paired up to nest and often start earlier than many other perching birds.

Bushtit @ Bill Schmoker

As spring migration continues, we will say goodbye to many species of waterbirds, and hello to some of our summer favorites such as hummingbirds, swallows, and Bullock’s Orioles. Be sure to sign up early for the next walk on April 28th, 2018 by visiting the Hudson Garden’s website.

Species List:

American Robin – 30

Black-capped Chickadee – 5

Northern Flicker – 3

European Starling – 9

Red-winged Blackbird – 25

Northern Harrier – 1

Song Sparrow – 4

Green-winged Teal – 4

Bufflehead – 7

Double-crested Cormorant – 2

Mallard – 14

American Coot – 1

House Finch – 12

American Goldfinch – 4

Killdeer – 1

Bushtit – 4

American Wigeon – 12

Gadwall – 6

Swallow spp. – 10 (flying high)

Canada Goose – 26

Blue Jay – 5

Common Grackle – 3

Eurasian Collared-Dove – 2

Common Raven – 1

Black-billed Magpie – 3