Birding Aiken Canyon

trail-aikencanyon-21apr07-lah-015rsWherever we live, we birders have a favorite birding spot (or two)—the place we’re sure to see that less common species, or that is exceptionally scenic. Maybe the trail is just right—some ups and downs, but nothing overly strenuous, and the perfect length to fill a morning, but not leave us exhausted at the end of a too-long day. It’s the place that we imagine when we think about going birding next weekend. Aiken Canyon has it all—interesting birds, beautiful scenery, and a well-maintained trail.

The Nature Conservatory owns this site, chosen because it’s “one of the last high-quality examples of the southern Front Range foothills ecosystem.”

The preserve lies just south of Colorado Springs on Hwy. 115. To get there, you drive along the western edge of Ft. Carson and then past the May Museum, with its fascinating collection of exotic (but dead) insects. Finally, you pull into a small housing development nestled among the iconic red rock formations. The parking lot is immediately on your right, offering a picnic area and a very welcome restroom.

I typically aim for an early arrival when hiking here. In the warmer months, the day heats quickly, and the birds go from rousing morning choristers to drowsy nappers by mid-morning. The parking lot, with its adjacent field, is an excellent place to look (and listen) for Lark (left) and Vesper Sparrows and Mountain Bluebirds. Spotted Towhees (right) call from every direction. Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays squawk from the treetops. Hawks and Turkey Vultures soar overhead.

AikenCyn-CO_LAH_3183The four-mile trail leads off to the northwest, aiming for the foothills, meandering in and out of a dry streambed. Take the left fork, which brings you through scrub oak, junipers, and piñons. Look for Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (in summer) and Juniper Titmouses (Titmice?) flitting through the shrubbery and Chipping Sparrows looking for insects in the leaf litter.

The climb is slow but steady, culminating in a forest of scattered Ponderosas and weathered rocks. From here, you can opt to hike a ¾ mile long spur trail that runs through the canyon to the site of an old cabin.

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Mountain Chickadees (left); Red-breasted, Pygmy, and White-breasted Nuthatches; Yellow-rumped Warblers, and assorted flycatchers (right: Cordilleran Flycatcher) flit through the branches of the pines. Clark’s Nutcrackers live here, although they’re not common. One time, I was thrilled to see a Northern Pygmy-Owl perched at eye-level on a trailside branch. The sun had been up for a couple of hours, but the bird was wide awake, staring at the birders. Of course, that had to be the day I decided to leave my camera at home!

Ash-throated Flycatcher_CO_LAH_2696After catching your breath, it’s time to head down. At one point, you pass through an open grassy area—a good place to look for Ash-throated Flycatchers (right). Eventually, the loop rejoins the original trail and leading back to the parking lot.

Birds aren’t the only attraction along this trail. Wildflowers bloom in spring and summer, visited by butterflies and other insects. You’ll encounter some larger wildlife as well—I’ve encountered plenty of deer, plus squirrels and other rodents. Cottontail rabbits browse the smaller plants. While I’ve never seen them, bears are a possibility.

Track @AikenCyn 21Apr07 LAH 029So are mountain lions. It was a bright and fresh morning, after a thunderstorm the previous evening, when I was (foolishly) hiking alone, thrilled to be leaving the first footprints on the muddy trail. On my way back, a couple of hours later, I noticed some rather large tracks—clearly cat, as there were no toenail indentations—on top of my boot prints! That’s why I highly recommend bringing at least one hiking buddy, just in case.

Besides, someplace this perfect deserves to be shared.



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