Last Saturday promised to be a great day. We were heading to Chico Basin Ranch. The ranch describe itself as a:
… 87,000-acre family-run, working cattle ranch that operates on the high prairie 30 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Its sprawling ranges of shortgrass and sandsage prairie, spring-fed lakes, creeks, and pools are home to diverse populations of birds, pronghorn, deer, fish, prairie dogs, coyote, badgers, and much more. … In addition to our cattle business, the Chico offers education, farming, recreation, sporting, arts, and hospitality programs.
It’s one of the best birding sites in our area, well worth a trip any time. In addition, they were hosting a “Birder Brunch” on Saturday, a free breakfast for those of us who bird there. I was eagerly anticipating good food, good company, and a day of exceptional birding. However…
The trip was in jeopardy all week. First, predictions called for dismal weather—cold temperatures, rain or snow all day—and all the day before. Ranches have dirt roads; could our Prius navigate the muddy potholes?
Then there was the mid-week fire. Fed by strong winds and a very dry winter, the flames raced across the prairie at 40 mph, consuming the dried grasses. Twenty-three houses in the area were lost, along with various outbuildings and livestock. Part of Chico Basin Ranch burned too, thankfully a remote section of grazing land. Still, the ranchers were evacuated for several days, cattle died, and fences needed to be replaced as quickly as possible. With all the work to do, we expected the brunch to be cancelled.
But early Saturday morning, word went out—the brunch is on! Come support the ranch!
Driving through the neighboring small town of Hanover was an eye-opener. Blackened prairie was dotted with small patches of green, a surviving home in the middle of each one. The fire fighters must have expended a heroic effort to save them.
The ranch itself looked unscathed, at least where we were. We’d arrived early, and I set out to look for birds. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was accurate (a rare occurrence), and I shivered in spite of my layers of clothing. I saw birds, but identifying them was difficult; it’s hard to make out details on a very cloudy day. Even more challenging was getting decent photos in the bad light.
April is a bit early for many migrating birds, at least here in Colorado. The Common Grackles were back in force, but warblers and summer sparrows were scarce. We didn’t see a single flycatcher—maybe they’re still on their way.
The ponds were full of ducks, however—we saw almost every possible species, all decked out in their breeding finery. They were joined by Western and Eared Grebes, too many coots, and various shorebirds.
One highlight was seeing both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs feeding together. I’ve always struggled to differentiate between the two, but seeing them this way made it easy. Note the relative sizes (really only helpful when you have both species). More important, the Greater Yellowlegs has more barring under the tail and on the back flanks, while the Lesser is pale and plain. The Lesser is the bird in the middle with its tail pointed toward the camera.
The weather worsened, I was getting soaked (and so was my camera!), and it was time to call it a day. We’d had fun, even if I was a bit numb. But perhaps the most encouraging sighting happened on the way home—we spotted a Burrowing Owl sitting on a prairie dog mound in the middle of a blackened field. Life goes on. With the added moisture, I expect those fields of charcoal to be green and lush by summer.