I just spent five days in one of the prettiest parts of Colorado. Even better, those days were spent looking for birds. Over 200 birders gathered in the charming town of Salida to talk about birds, learn more about birds, and best of all, see birds! Yes, it was the annual Colorado Field Ornithologists’ convention.
Imagine five days of total avian immersion: a banquet with an entertaining guest speaker, tempting vendors, scientific papers, an evening game of Jea-birdy (I’ll take “Avian Newcomers” for $200 please), and the primary reason everyone came—birding, birding, and more birding!
They couldn’t have picked a more beautiful backdrop for this year’s gathering. The continental divide runs through a series of snow-capped peaks soaring to over 14,000 feet. Blue mountain lakes, conifer and aspen forests, and meadows full of wildflowers vied for our attention. I would have been happy there even if I hadn’t seen a single bird.
I had chosen my trips to vary the habitats as much as possible. As a result, my species list for the five days totaled a tidy 108 species.
Some birds were everywhere. Yellow Warblers inhabited the (relative) lowlands while Wilson’s Warblers occupied the heights. Grassy fields held Mountain Bluebirds, Savannah Sparrows, and Horned Larks. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds could be heard, if not seen, as they buzzed by. Marsh Wrens and a Common Yellowthroat (above) called from the tall grass around some seasonal wetlands, and an American Dipper braved a rushing, snowmelt-engorged stream.
A few highlights included a Virginia Rail at Hayden Meadows (bottom, left), south of Leadville, Pinyon Jays in the high country, the Lewis’s Woodpeckers behind the park in Buena Vista, and both Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers in one small clump of aspen on Marshall Pass (near Poncha Springs). One group was treated to a Wilson’s Snipe that posed on a fence post while everyone snapped photos.
By far the most exciting find was the dozen or so American Bitterns at Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area (north of Alamosa)! Until now, I’d only seen two bitterns in eleven years of birding. As Joe Roller, our trip leader, later wrote: “Bitterns were standing in the marsh, bitterns were flying above the cattails, and bitterns were gulping, ‘oon-ka-choonk, oon-ka-choonk.’” A pair even took to the sky in what must have been an altitude record for the species, the male chasing the female to heights of over 60 feet. That’s a huge leap for this secretive species.
You might be wondering at this point why I don’t have better photographs of all these amazing birds. This brings us to the weekend’s frustration—most of the birds were too far away. We could barely identify them in the scope. I do have photos—this dot is a Western Grebe, this dot is a Mountain Bluebird, and the dot at left is a singing Savannah Sparrow. Can you tell?
Mind you, I use a 1.7 tele-extender with a 500mm lens on a tripod. The combination is huge and very heavy, and I was hauling it over boardwalks and down trails. But the only birds that came within range were the Evening Grosbeaks and Cassin’s Finches at a set of backyard feeders in Saguache, and the Gray Jays (right) that flocked to our picnic table at the fish hatchery.
Combined with the distance, many of the birds insisted on skulking in the tangled stems of plants, large and small, making it nearly impossible to use the auto-focus feature of my lens. I have a lot of fuzzy photos.
Well, when it comes to photography, every trip isn’t a success. I had fun anyway, saw lots of fascinating birds, met a number of lovely birders, and spent five days not unpacking moving boxes. I can’t complain.