Winter Birding in Colorado

kettlecreeklakes_2008-11-22_lah_361rOur recent warm spell is lovely, but it’s still January. Temperatures swing back and forth between cool and freezing. Trails are icy, and sometimes blocked by snow. This is traditionally a time to hole up and hunker down. We are attracted to warm firesides, hot chocolate, and snugly quilts. But if you, like me, are passionate about nature, and birds in particular, can we be content to sit by the fire? Just because the temperature outside is in the single digits, are we to ignore our obsession and hibernate like bears?

Of course, some birds have opted for tropical vacations, and I’m sure we would love to do likewise. But if the schedule and budget don’t allow for a trip to Central America, be encouraged. There are plenty of birds to be enjoyed right here. A surprising number of species hang around for the season.

Mountain Chickadee_StForestStPark-CO_Mountain Chickadee_StForestStPark-CO_LAH_0278In spite of the many verses praising robins as harbingers of spring, they are here in Colorado year round. During the Christmas Bird Count of 2006, we counted well over 200 just in our little section of Colorado Springs. Chickadees and Nuthatches are known as year-round birds. So are American Goldfinches—they just exchange their summer outfits for drab winter wear. Woodpeckers are easier to spot when the leaves have fallen.

Some species that spend their summers in the arctic actually come here for the winter. My initial discovery of the joys of birding occurred in the spring. I still remember driving down to Fountain Creek Nature Center, south of Colorado Springs, all excited to be seeing my first Blue Jay, Song Sparrow, or Sharp-shinned Hawk. I eagerly scanned the various ponds, looking for the ducks depicted in my Peterson’s Guide. All I could find were Mallards.

Throughout that first summer, whenever the opportunity presented itself, I would take a break and head to the closest body of water. But month after month, it was Mallards, Mallards, Mallards. (In August, I was totally mystified, wondering what had happened to all the males, when there were so many females still around, but that’s another story.) I was beginning to believe the rest of the pictures in my guide were a hoax, that there were no other kinds of ducks, and Peterson had painted the pretty pictures just to increase book sales. (Years later, I had the same doubts about owl species.)

Common Mergansers females @FCNC 2009-01-21 LAH 661rThen the days began to shorten, temperatures cooled, and the migrants arrived. Seemingly overnight, the Mallards had company: Gadwalls at first, then American Wigeons, Green-winged Teal, Goldeneyes and Buffleheads, and the incredible hooded Merganser. I was thrilled. While I have since learned that many species really are around in the summer, to me, winter remains the best time to look for ducks.

Ducks aren’t the only ones who come as winter visitors. When the Swainson’s Hawks head for the plains of Argentina, the Rough-legged Hawks arrive from their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra and taiga. They are well-suited for our cold winters. Along with Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles, they are the only American hawks to have feathery “bloomers” to keep their legs warm.

junco_victorco_20090117_lah_473Perhaps one of the most convenient aspects of winter birding is the tendency for high altitude species to move to lower elevations. Birds such as Juncos (left), that spend their summers frolicking on the mountain tops, become familiar yard birds when severe weather arrives. All three species of Rosy-Finches come from both the north and the highest elevations, congregating in places such as Victor and Cripple Creek, where we can go see them. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

Birds with wanderlust (or just a poor sense of direction) may show up at any time of year. Some strays are more likely to come to town in winter, geese and gulls in particular. For example, recent Front Range sightings include Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, and Mew, Greater Black-backed, and Glaucous Gulls.

If you have been sitting indoors, you also likely missed the Snowy Owl, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Carolina and Winter Wrens, White-throated, Harris’s and Golden-crowned Sparrows, Northern Cardinal,  and White-winged Crossbill, all of which have been recently sighted along Colorado’s Front Range. Those are birds we don’t see every day!

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