Last Chance. It sounds as if it’s a small town in the middle of nowhere, and that’s about right. Situated at the intersection of Colorado Highways 71 and 36 (the same road that goes to Boulder, some hundred miles to the west) we found several houses, a fire station, and a church, along with some abandoned buildings piled with broken furniture and other castoffs.
The big draw is a small roadside rest (complete with portable “facilities”) right next to a small pond surrounded by green shrubs and some trees. It’s a birder’s dream. Surrounded as it is by miles of dry fields, the tiny riparian area at Last Chance is a migrant trap.
The first birds we noticed were the ubiquitous doves—Mourning and Eurasian Collared (above)—that populate the plains. Barn Swallows and Common Nighthawks circled overhead, keeping the mosquito population in check.
They were aided by a number of Western Wood Pewees (right), which would sally out from a prominent branch to grab an insect, then return to their posts to keep watch for more. These drab flycatchers have a pugnacious personality all out of proportion to their diminutive size.
They weren’t the only flycatchers. I always doubt my tentative Empidomax IDs, but we had several excellent birders with us. With some hastily snapped photos to refer to, we agreed that the bird in front of us was a Willow Flycatcher. Nice!
There was some discussion about yet another, larger, flycatcher. Was it an Ash-throated or a Great Crested? Here’s the from-far-away picture I took. What do you think? (The experts never agreed, so it remains Myiarchus sp. on my list.)
A Brown Thrasher moved through the brush, startling a Black-headed Grosbeak into flight. Small yellow balls of feathers resolved into Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers, heading south. Then someone noticed a small bird on a half-submerged log surrounded by duckweed. It was my very first Northern Waterthrush! Once again, birding during migration paid off with a species not normally seen in these parts.
Shortly after that, we realized that the small greenish bird in the tree above us was a Cassin’s Vireo, yet another lifer for me! Unusually bold, it emerged from the leaves long enough for all of us to get a satisfying look. Unfortunately, it was too far away for a photo, even for my longest lens.
Having exhausted the possibilities at Last Chance (with a total of 29 species), we headed east, then north, looking for sparrows and other prairie birds. At the pond next to Akron’s golf course we added Clay-colored Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler, and a Baltimore Oriole.
Finally, looming dark clouds sent us scurrying for home, just ahead of the deluge.
Finally it was Monday morning, and time to head home. Since we were already north and east, making a beeline for Colorado Springs seemed a waste. I joined one of the departure trips, and we headed directly west to bird the Pawnee Grasslands.
It was too late in the season for the increasingly scarce McGowan’s Longspur, so we skipped the prairie drive and stuck to the cottonwoods and tall weeds at Crow Valley Campground. We’d hardly begun when someone spotted an American Redstart—yet another life bird! Of course I wanted to see a breeding male, but even this bird was lovely, with yellow bands on its wings. And no amount of staring at a picture in a field guide can teach you behavior. From now on, I’ll instantly recognize the characteristic wing and tail flashes of this pretty warbler.
There were more birds in the trees—Robins, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches, a Western Tanager, more Cassin’s and Warbling Vireos. From somewhere in a dense thicket came the distinctive sound of a catbird “meowing.” The better-than-I-am birders concluded that one Empid was a Dusky Flycatcher and I dutifully wrote it down.
We finished the day with more warblers: Orange-crowned, Townsend’s, and dozens of Wilson’s hopping around a tall patch of black-eyed susans and other weeds. As usual, these hyperactive birds were easy to spot and hard to photograph—they never hold still! Finally, having made our circuit, we picnicked under the trees; then I headed west and south for the long drive home.
I was looking forward to at least ten hours of sleep that night, and I couldn’t wait to see if any of my photos looked as good on my larger desktop screen as they did on the back of my camera. CFO has already announced that the 2015 convention will be held in June, in Salida, and I plan to be there!