July is not the best time to go birding. The sweat drips from under your floppy hat and smears the view through your binos, and there’s a puddle soaking your shirt under your sling/backpack/fanny pack. It’s a challenge just carrying enough water to stay hydrated.
The birds aren’t cooperating, either. Most of the males have stopped singing now that they have their mates and their territories. Soon they’ll be molting out of their breeding plumage into something much duller and harder to identify. Some are already thinking about heading south, although they won’t actually leave town for a few more weeks.
Then there are the baby birds—juveniles fresh from the nest. In many cases, they look like neither parent. I still remember the first young American Robin I saw, gobbling chokecherries by our driveway years ago. I was so excited—I was sure I had a new yard bird. And I was so disappointed to find it was “only” a robin, I never even stopped to appreciate the beautiful spots covering its breast, spots that reveal it as a member of the thrush family.
While I will still go for walks and search for birds, mostly at higher altitudes, this is the time of year my attention wanders. I spend inordinate amounts of time in the garden, even though it’s hot there too. I’m checking for the first harvestable zucchini, mourning the hail-shredded lettuce, and hunting down every weed before it can reproduce itself in thousands of seeds.
Public gardens are in full bloom, and I try to arrive early and stay late in order to get the best lighting for my photos. Come winter, there will be time to sort, edit, delete, but now I take as many pictures as possible. Summer doesn’t last long in Colorado.
When the gardens get too hot, we head for the mountains. Wildflowers peak at high altitudes in mid-July. Crested Butte boasts of being the “Wildflower Capital of Colorado” and they certainly have a lot of supporting evidence. Their wildflower festival is well worth attending.
For a birder learning about wild plants, there is an immediate source of frustration. A field guide for the birds lists every bird that you could reasonably expect to see in a given location. But there are far too many wildflowers for any tote-able book to contain, so the authors are forced to pick and choose. If you think there are too many LBJs, consider the number of yellow daisies. There are over 1,500 species of Senecio alone!
Additionally, field identification rapidly becomes amazingly tedious. You’re expected to determine such things as the stickiness of the sepals, or the number of stamen. A degree in botany helps.
Even worse, the whole field of botanical taxonomy is in great flux, and scientific names change weekly. I finally decided that if I can ID the plant to the level of Genus, I’ll be more than satisfied.
Along with the flowers, there are butterflies. I know I might regret not paying closer attention to these beautiful insects—many birders turn to butterflies once their local birds are checked off their life list, and Colorado has an abundance of butterflies. For now, I have rudimentary ID skills. I can tell blues from sulfurs, at least. My camera will record my sightings, should I care to learn more someday.
Even harder to identify are the dragonflies. If butterflies are delicate and ephemeral, dragonflies are ferocious armored war machines. I want close-ups, but I don’t want to get too close. Experts claim they don’t bite, but plenty of people have personal experience to the contrary. Dragonflies are creatures of mid-summer, so they fill the vacuum nicely, and they’re another group of creatures found in field guides and on life lists.
There seems to be a special mentality among us listers. We love to check off the species we have “collected.” If it weren’t for birds and other flying creatures, we’d be hoarding tea cups or stamps or bottle caps. At least life lists don’t clutter up the house (although the books, optics, and other paraphernalia certainly take up space)!
Whether you stick to birds, or branch out into flowers, butterflies, dragonflies, or other more exotic creatures, there’s plenty to see outside. Any nature lover has no excuse for sticking close to the air conditioning.
Photos, from top: Juvenile American Robin, Colorado Blue Columbine near Crested Butte, Perky Sue (one of the few yellow compositae that I can ID), Swallowtail species butterfly, unidentified dragonfly from Grand Junction, CO (help?)