Looking for Birds, and Fish

One of my favorite birding sites, especially in winter, is Eleven Mile Canyon, near Lake George, Colorado. It may seem odd to head up the mountain—to over 8,000 feet—in winter, but I’d rather have cold than crowds of people camping, picnicking, and especially fishing. Besides, the stream runs even in the most frigid conditions, at least under the ice. Typical sightings include Bald Eagles, Common Ravens, Mountain Chickadees, Song Sparrows, and always American Dippers.

On this day last weekend, the weather was balmy, in the mid-40s. That sure beat the -30 F wind chill we experienced a few years ago, but there was a drawback—many of places I typically found birds were instead occupied by fishermen.


We did see a pair of eagles, their white tails disappearing over the cliffs. And I managed to find and photograph a cooperative dipper. But in general, the presence of so many people meant that the birds had headed for the hills, or at least the bushes. Aside from the ravens soaring overhead, and some Canada Geese and Common Golden-eyes floating the stream, the only other species we spotted was a lone chickadee in the roadside willows.

I have nothing against people wanting to fish. I love a good trout, and have tried my hand at catching them. (So far, it has taken a visit to a private trout pond for me to land a fish.) I realize I have to share nature with others. But I admit, it was a bit of a disappointment to find so few birds on one of the rare days lately that I had an opportunity to go birding.

I recently learned that El Paso County, were we live, is planning to add a fishing beach to another local birding site, a pond in a neighborhood east of town. I understand the desire to provide a place for locals, especially children, to fish. It conjures up images of the barefoot boy (or girl!) with a bamboo pole over his shoulder—the essence of childhood.

However, there’s a major issue with combining fishing and birding. It’s the hazard that hooks and lines present to the birds. Most anglers are responsible and take care to clean up after themselves, but there are a few who leave snarled filament and even hooks behind. They give the sport a bad image, especially with conservation-minded birders.

Cormorant in tree_Venetucci_20090916_LAH_0676fBirds caught by fishing debris die a slow and painful death, such as this Double-crested Cormorant we found dangling by one foot, high in a tree. It was still barely alive when we arrived early in the morning, but dead before we could mount a rescue.

Actually, fishing and birding could be an excellent combination. All that time spent waiting for the fish to bite could be used to look, and especially listen, for birds. Many species are attracted to the same habitats that contain ponds and streams. I’ve spent hours on the Santa Cruz pier, looking at the birds bobbing on the ocean below.

Promoting an interest in birding among those fishing could benefit everyone. Those who enjoy the birds are unlikely to leave behind trash that poses a hazard to them, and much more likely to support habitat preservation.

The bird in last week’s quiz is a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow.

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