I wanted to squeeze in at least one more field trip before the first snows, so I joined up with other members of our local Audubon chapter and headed out to Ramah State Wildlife Area. Located in Colorado’s eastern El Paso County, Ramah is surrounded by miles of shortgrass prairie. The views include cows, rolling hills, and Excel Energy’s new windmill farm. There’s a shallow valley that has been dammed to trap rain runoff in wet years.
A decade ago, Ramah had some water in it, creating a shallow lake lined with mudflats. On my first visit, back in 2004, we saw numerous shorebirds, raptors, songbirds, grebes, coots, and plenty of ducks. But then the weather changed, and the lake dried up. We visited off and on over the years, sighting Western Meadowlarks and Mountain Bluebirds, but without water, there were no waterfowl .
Then the spring of 2015 arrived. It rained, and rained, and rained. The drought-parched ground became saturated, and the reservoir filled up—all the way to the ancient boat ramp and parking lot. With the return of the water, the birds reappeared. And with the return of the birds came the return of the birders. I heard glowing reports of tremendous diversity, long species lists, and rarities.
I’m sad to say I missed a lot of the excitement—life was too full to spend much time birding. But winter was coming, and I finally made time to get out and see what Ramah had to offer.
While the day was sunny, the exposed site meant that the wind was howling. I was glad I had thrown both my fleece and my jacket in the car, just in case, and I wore both while wishing I’d added knit hat and gloves! My expectations plummeted with the temperature. What bird would be crazy enough to be out in this weather? If I were a bird, I’d be hunkered down in a nice, sheltered bush!
We were happily surprised to find that waterfowl, at least, don’t mind a bit of cold and wind. By far, the dominant species were American Coots. The water was covered with them. They were joined by ducks (Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, Gadwalls, Ruddy Ducks, to name a few) and Clark’s, Pied-billed, and Eared Grebes. American Pipits (left) and Killdeer (above) ran along the narrow beach, peeps dotted the water line, and dowitchers (below) looked like sewing machines as they probed the mud.
I had brought my long camera lens, but not my scope—an oversight I quickly regretted. Fall shorebirds are difficult enough to ID, and I couldn’t see much detail, even by taking a photo and enlarging it on the back of my camera. Next time I won’t forget to bring both!
Not all the birds were on the water. A Northern Harrier chased a pair of Prairie Falcons into a nearby cottonwood. Some Pine Siskins and a meadowlark decorated a few willow branches as a flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds flew by. American Goldfinches hunted for the last of the Rudbeckia seeds, and a mystery sparrow called from the dried grasses and weeds. (We never did get a look.)
A particular treat was seeing a pair of white geese (likely Snow Geese, but hey, they could be Ross’s, couldn’t they?) fly by on their way south. Sandhill Cranes were also heading southward, probably to Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.
The wind never let up, and we didn’t stay as long as I would have liked. When I have my camera in front of me, I rarely notice the weather! Now the forecast is for rain, cold, and likely snow. I’m glad I went birding while I had the chance.