Fall Birding, Part 2

(Continued from last week’s post about the Colorado Field Ornithologists’ (CFO) 2014 convention.)

Yellowlegs_JacksonLakeSP-CO_LAH_2104Leading up to the CFO convention, which happened over Labor Day weekend, forecasters were calling for weather in the high 90s. It was a delightful surprise to discover that their predictions were wrong. Instead of sweltering under the hot prairie sun, we enjoyed days in the low 80s, with scattered clouds (and one rapidly-moving thunderstorm). What a relief to be focused on the birds instead of the heat!

On Saturday, I joined a group heading across the plains to Red Lion State Wildlife Area and Jumbo Reservoir, with stops for sparrows along the way. I’m terrible at identifying sparrows, so I was eager to enlist the help of better birders. I knew I would learn something, and maybe pick up a Grasshoppper Sparrow, which had been eluding me for years.

Western Meadowlark_LastChance-CO_LAH_1997Sure enough, someone in the lead car spotted a flock of LBJs and we all pulled over to sort them out. Vesper Sparrows are common, as were Western Meadowlarks (left). We saw a lot of them, along with some Lark Buntings, the Colorado state bird. I’m familiar with the distinctive males, but these were not in their breeding plumage, and I would have missed them if I’d been on my own.

Then someone called out “Grasshopper Sparrow!” and I rushed over to see. Six birds were hopping around in the roadside weeds and scratching in the gravelly soil. I got great looks—so satisfying when it’s a bird you’ve been hunting for!

My LBJ identification was improving, but my eyes still had a tendency to glaze over when staring at sparrows!

Blue-winged Teal_RedLionSWA-LoganCo-CO_LAH_2305The wildlife area consisted of several marshy ponds and some more short-grass prairie. We set up across the street, so as not to frighten the waders poking in the mud. This time the dowagers were really dowagers—both Long-billed and Short-billed standing right next to one another. That made for a great ID lesson, although they were too far away to get a decent photo. (I did capture these Blue-winged Teal as they circled overhead.)

I frantically tried to remember what I knew about shorebird identification. (I’m better at waders than I am at sparrows, but they were so far away!) Were those yellowlegs greater or lesser? That was a spotted sandpiper, but what were those two “basic sandpiper” birds? I was about to pull out my book when our leader ID’d them as Stilt Sandpipers—another life species for me! I got good looks at the birds in front of me, saving the book for later.

White Pelicans_JumboRes-LoganCo-CO_LAH_2330We moved on to the reservoir. This time there was more habitat for waders, and we picked up a few more species. Hundreds of White Pelicans covered the beach while Black Terns wheeled overhead. A Lesser Black-backed Gull tried in vain to fit in with the Ring-billed crowd. A quick survey of the surrounding rabbitbrush turned up some flycatchers, a number of Common Nighthawks, and a pair of Orchard Orioles, among others.

Finally, a return to Red Lion SWA yielded a Bell’s Vireo—not a lifer but still a welcome addition to the trip list.

It was now Saturday evening, and we were beginning to run out of steam. Repeated early morning departures were taking their toll. But this was our annual banquet night and our guest speaker was Jon Dunn, one of the authors of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. No one wanted to miss his lecture on shorebird identification.

Well, Mr. Dunn certainly knows his subject, but he presented so much information! Did we really need to know the details of breeding plumage that we’d never see south of the arctic tundra? Was it vital that I understand how and why to assign subspecies to birds I could barely identify? I’m afraid I was left in the dust. My conclusion from his talk? Shorebirds are very difficult!

Well, tomorrow would be another day of birding, so we all headed off for some sleep. Learning so much new information was wearing me out!

To be continued…

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