Birding the Summer Prairie

Western Kingbird_SE-EPC-CO_LAH_5308-001

There’s a rhythm to birding in Colorado. At this time of year, many birders head to the mountains for the cooler temperatures and gorgeous scenery. Seasonal campgrounds and picnic spots that are inaccessible during the winter are currently full of wildflowers and nesting alpine birds, not to mention people hiking, fishing, or simply hanging around relaxing. While I love seeing people out enjoying nature, at times, the more popular spots get too crowded.

Horned Lark_SE EPC-CO_LAH_7403On the other hand, in winter we tend to visit the high plains. It’s a great time to view and photograph raptors, and as the days grow longer, nesting Great Horned Owls. Northern Shrikes, Horned Larks (right), and other residents are easier to spot on bare limbs. Waterfowl that nest in the far north spend their winters on the prairie watering holes. And the brilliant sunshine means that snow rarely persists once the storm moves on.

Recently, a friend and I decided to head east to look for summer birds on the prairies. To beat the predicted heat, we set our alarms, arriving at our first destination just as the sun cleared the horizon. Without the mountains blocking the view, the sunrise was spectacular—and so was the birding.

We particularly hoped to find Burrowing Owl families. We made them our first priority; since they mostly hang out on the ground, you have to take photos in the early morning before heat distortion blurs your focus. Well, we arrived at the same prairie dog colony that had hosted owls in the past few months, but only found (along with the prairie dogs) an Eastern Cottontail, and elusive Jack Rabbit, dozens of Northern Mockingbirds (a surprise), but no owls.

Shrugging off our disappointment, we continued on, slowing cruising along deserted dirt roads and stopping whenever we came across a promising site—additional prairie dog towns, isolated trees, open water—or one that had yielded interesting birds in the past. (Thank you e-Bird listers!)

Barbed-wire fences and overhead utility wires offered perches in an otherwise flat landscape. Colorado’s state bird, the Lark Bunting, sang to define his territory. A recently fledged Loggerhead Shrike hopped around in a bush, then posed for the photographers. A number of Lark Sparrows were busy carrying insects to their hidden nests.

Western Kingbirds were everywhere. Like other flycatchers, they sally out to nab flying insects in mid-air, then return to the same perch. We paused to watch their aerial gymnastics.

Bullock's Oriole feeding young at nest_SE-EPC-CO_LAH_5357The highlight of the trip was the Bullock’s Oriole nest she found in a lone cottonwood. Both parents were nearby, but only the female was actively feeding the young. We guessed that dad was busy finding his own breakfast, and that they would change roles once he was done.

By mid-morning, when we finally decreed it too hot to continue, we had amassed a respectable trip list and some satisfying photos. No, it wasn’t the Most Amazing Birding Ever, but it was a welcome change of pace and well worth the lack of sleep.

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