I don’t go to many birding festivals. They cost money and they attract crowds. I’m not a big fan of crowds. But I make an exception every year for the Pikes Peak Birding and Nature Festival, held right here in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado. In fact, not only do I go to the festival, I’m a volunteer.
This year I signed up to help on two field trips, one to Aiken Canyon, and one to Clear Springs Ranch. The, I got a phone call from one of the organizing committee members:
“Hi, how are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m fine—what’s up?”
Silence. This person does not do silence. It was a dead giveaway that she needed something from me.
“Ok, what do you want? You know I’ll probably say yes.”
“One of our speakers cancelled at the last minute. He was going to give the bird photography workshop. Do you think…??”
And that is how I found myself rushing back from my first fieldtrip to teach 36 people how to take pictures of birds. I admit—it was fun!
The first hike was to Aiken Canyon, a piece of the foothills owned by The Nature Conservatory. Aiken Canyon is one of my favorite birding spots, even with its somewhat more strenuous hiking. I had joined a scouting trip the week before, so I thought I knew what birds would be present, but I was amazed at how much change there was in a mere seven days.
Sometime during that intervening week, the vireos and flycatchers had arrived. Plumbeous Vireos (left) were everywhere. We could hear them calling from the Ponderosas, but they were rather tricky to actually spot. Vireos may not be as frenetic as warblers, but they rarely sit still, at least for long.
Most of the flycatchers were Western Wood-Pewees (right), a nondescript bird with a dusky vest. But we also spotted a few Empids. Since they didn’t say anything (seriously? this is spring!), we didn’t know who was who. It’s no accident that eBird has an option for “Empidonax species.”
By far the most prevalent birds were the Spotted Towhees. eBird complained when our species count topped 35, and we still had several miles of hiking to go. They were everywhere—scratching under the Gambel’s Oak, singing from the treetops, and flitting through the branches—likely making more Spotted Towhees. I had to concentrate to eliminate their “drink, drink, drink teeeea” so I could listen for other species.
Then there were the other usual suspects—Bluegray Gnatcatchers in abundance (right), Mountain Chickadees (left), Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Northern Flickers, Yellow-rumped and Yellow Warblers, and both Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds.
We had a few nice sightings—my third-ever Juniper Titmouse darted past in such a hurry I never got a photo. An Ash-throated Flycatcher was nesting in a tree cavity. My favorite was a MacGillivray’s Warbler, all done up in his breeding plumage of charcoal and yellow, and so deeply buried in the leaves and twigs that we could barely see him.
Sunday morning’s hike to Clear Spring Ranch was much more leisurely, on a flat trail along Fountain Creek in this relatively new country park. The willows and cottonwoods had finally leafed out, chokecherry and golden current were in full bloom, and a late morning mist cooled the air. Birds were everywhere. We saw many of the same species as we had the day before—towhees, House Wrens, vireos—but some were new.
Favorites included several Lazuli Buntings, Yellow-breasted Chats (heard, not seen), and a pair of Indigo Buntings. Someone spotted a recently fledged Great Horned Owlet in the crook of a horizontal branch. We searched nearby trees for mom or dad, but they were clearly better hidden than Junior.
One of the frustrations of the festival was the lack of a chase trip to re-find some of the best sightings. There just wasn’t time, with the trips only running from Friday evening to noon on Sunday. So I missed the Summer and Hepatic Tanagers that were sighted at another ranch east of town. Oh well, maybe next year.
One of the nicest parts of attending a festival is seeing old birding friends and making new birding friends. Saturday’s “Birds and Brews” happy hour was the perfect time to sit down, put up ones tired feet, and share trip highlights. I invited all the newbies to join us on our Audubon chapter fieldtrips, so I hope to see them again, soon!