Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR

Saturday was such a gorgeous day in Colorado, my husband and I headed for the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, just northeast of Denver. There’s something inherently satisfying about taking a place that was once a chemical warfare factory and turning it into a shortgrass prairie abounding in wildlife.

Or at least it was supposed to abound. We’ve been there before, in late spring, when the numerous scrubby areas were full of birds. This visit was quite different.

Part of our disappointment came from our late arrival. I know that to see the best birds, you have to get up early. But this was our first day off in ages, and I didn’t get up until it was almost daylight. By the time we had breakfast, packed the car, and drove an hour up the interstate, it was well into the morning.

The refuge was brown and crispy. That’s what happens when you haven’t received even half the average rainfall for the year. We’re well into a severe drought, and everything is extremely dry. Brown is also the color things turn in the winter. Even through the day reached 64 delightful degrees, we’ve had a few snowflakes and many nights well below freezing. Plants are dead or dormant. (The few patches of green grass were being watered by traces of last week’s snow.)

Still, any day spent in nature has got to be better than staying home, and Saturday was no exception. The new Wildlife Drive was open, and we took advantage of it. The wonderful thing about wildlife refuges you can drive through is that a car makes an excellent blind. We were able to get very close to several mule deer, who completely ignored me while I clicked away. (White-tails also live at the refuge, but we didn’t see any.)

Rocky Mountain Arsenal provides the perfect habitat for Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, and their towns are extensive. Again, the car allowed us close viewing. They knew we were there, but didn’t consider us a threat. I made a note to come back in the spring, when the young are old enough to emerge from the burrows.

Most of the refuge has been restored to its pre-settled state. However, the addition of several man made ponds and lakes is a huge improvement. In a dry area, the presence of water attracts waterfowl by the thousands. Eight of these lakes are readily accessible by car or on foot (Lake Mary is even open to catch-and-release fishing) and they had some ducks. But by far the greatest concentration of ducks and geese were on Lower Derby Lake, which is closed to the public (it figures). Since you can see the lake from the road, we stopped and pulled out the scope (essential!) to see what might be mixed with the Ring-billed Gulls and Canada Geese.

With a lot of squinting, we were able to spot Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Gadwall, Redhead, American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Common Goldeneye, Northern Shoveler, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, and one lone probable Snow Goose (it might have been a Ross’s but it was just too far away to tell). There were likely more species, but did I mention how far away they all were?

Raptors are common residents of the refuge. We were hoping for Bald Eagles, which winter in the area, or perhaps a Ferruginous or Rough-legged Hawk, but all I saw on Saturday was one Red-tail perched on a bare branch.

A pair of feeders near Lake Mary hosted House Finches, Downy Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers hammered the tree limbs, and flocks of Starlings wheeled overhead. Magpies were everywhere… not too spectacular, but at least they had wings and feathers.

My other goal for the day was at least one good photo of an American Bison—a small herd has been reintroduced to the refuge. We saw them, all right. They were waaaay over there, behind the tall wire fence. You can get a glimpse, but there were no photo ops.

Later, as we sat at Wahoo’s (about 10 minutes away) eating enchiladas and black beans, we summarized our morning. We saw lots of ducks and other waterfowl. There’s plenty of habitat for spring/summer birding, wildflowers, and butterflies—we were just there at the wrong time of year for those. The prairie dogs were cute, but I want to see babies. And the buffalo are too far away. We definitely had fun and plan to return in the spring.

(Maybe we should have stayed closer to home. The friends who birded our local pond came up with a couple of Colorado rarities: a Greater Yellowlegs and a Dunlin!)

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