Early Spring Birding

American Robin_FCNC-CO_LAH_2127Do you love Easter egg hunts? How about Pokemon Go? Or perhaps you’re into geocaching. If any of these sounds like fun, then you might look into birding. It’s all these rolled into one, with time outside in the fresh air and sunshine, the thrill of discovery, and a bit of nerdy science thrown in for good measure. You never know what you’re going to find.

This past weekend, a friend and I revisited our local county park and nature center. We’ve both been there dozens of times, and pretty much know what to expect. I’d enjoy the morning just for the chance to take a walk in the riparian corridor along Fountain Creek, but it’s the added hope of discovery that makes every visit interesting. And now that migration has started, my anticipation is higher than ever.


White-crowned Sparrow_FCNC-CO_LAH_2898

Of course, there are the year-round birds, such as these Canada Geese. We expect to see Song Sparrows and Downy Woodpeckers. The calendar still says winter, and the winter birds were still there as well. Dark-eyed Juncos and White-crowned Sparrows joined the House Finches, Black-capped Chickadees, and Eurasian Collared-Doves at the feeders.

The ponds held a wider assortment of ducks than we’ll see come summer. I especially enjoyed seeing a bright male Cinnamon Teal.

Cinnamon Teal_LAH_2101r

American Pipit_SummitLakeMtEvans-CO_LAH_5953-001At one point, we heard a distinctive Killdeer call and scanned the stream bed for a bird or two. But as I looked at the sand-colored birds in front of me, I realized that Killdeer weren’t the only birds hanging out among the rocks. These were American Pipits! I had always considered these pipits to be high altitude birds, having consistently seen them at Summit Lake, on the side of Mount Evans at an elevation of 13,002 feet. Now I know that, like juncos, pipits migrate vertically, summering in the mountains and spending the winter at (relatively) lower elevations.

RWBL_FCNC_LAH_6540We also found signs of spring. A cacophony of male Red-winged Blackbird staked their claims on the cattails. We were delighted to see a pair of Brown Creepers working their way up the bark of some old cottonwoods. It got better when we realized that they were chasing one another, flirting and hoping for a mate. Pairs of White-breasted Nuthatches were sharing food, another sign of a potential match.

Then there was the big black bird rapidly beating its way north (so quickly, I didn’t even get a photo). My first thought was, “That crow sure has a long tail!” But then we realized that it wasn’t a crow, and that long tail was held vertically, like the tail of a fish. “It’s a Great-tailed Grackle!”—the first of the season.

American Dipper_ElevenMileCyn-CO_LAH_8778

Finally, it’s always a thrill to help a new birder discover a new species for their life list. Over the past couple of months, a pair of American Dippers has been repeatedly sighted in the park. Normally you’d expect to see them along the banks of rushing mountain streams at much higher altitudes (such as in Eleven Mile Canyon). It’s been a bit of a surprise to find them along a slow-moving side channel at an elevation of only 5,545 feet. No one expects these birds to linger once the weather warms, and we were wondering if the past few warm days would have prodded them to move.

Then we came to a spot where the trail crossed over the stream, which ran through a large, corrugated steel culvert below. What was all that noise echoing from under our feet? It’s the male dipper! He must have liked the way the enclosed space amplified his music, and he was singing at the top of his lungs.

We did our best to hang upside down, trying to peer over the bank into the dark tunnel, but soon decided it wasn’t worth the risk of dropping our gear into the water. However, during a lull in the singing, a fellow birder walked up and asked if we’d seen the dipper. He’d driven an hour north from Pueblo in hopes of checking off a potential lifer. When we told him he was standing on the bird, you should have seen the shocked look on his face! (And being more motivated than we were, he did manage to grab a glimpse of the bird.)

By this time, the sun had climbed along with the temperature. We peeled off our jackets and let the warm day revive our winter-dreary spirits. The calendar may still say winter, but to the birds, spring has begun.

Birds, from top: American Robin, Song Sparrow, Downy Woodpecker, Canada Geese, White-crowned Sparrow, Cinnamon Teal, American Pipit (Mt. Evans, Summit Lake), Red-winged Blackbird, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, American Dipper (Eleven Mile Canyon).

The answer to last week’s quiz is Ruby-throated Hummingbird (female).

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