Chico Basin Ranch is a great place to bird all year round, but it is a must-see during spring migration. It’s easily worth the 45 minute drive from Colorado Springs, and the $15 daily access fee (annual passes are also available).
What makes this such a great spot?
A look at a map of Colorado shows why birds and birders love Chico Basin. Straddling the El Paso/Pueblo county line, the ranch attracts species found in the southeast corner of Colorado as well as those more that live in the north and west. Strategically situated between miles of arid, short-grass prairie on one side, and more miles of arid short-grass prairie on the other, the year-round ponds and green trees are a welcome rest stop for tired and thirsty migrating birds.
Like most people, I used to associate our state with mountains, skiing, and aspen. But now, mention Colorado and I think of prairies, cowboys, and most of all, hospitality.
My focus changed because of the town of Karval. With Pikes Peak barely visible on the horizon, this tiny town in Lincoln County, an hour east of Colorado Springs, doesn’t fit the typical person’s image of a vacation destination. Yet, I had a wonderful time there.
You have to have a reason to search out Karval. In my case, I was eager to attend their Mountain Plover Festival, held yearly at the end of April.
It’s the middle of winter. We could go birding, but it’s hard to juggle binoculars when one has on several layers of insulation, hat, scarf, and wool mittens. Cold weather has us huddled indoors, wishing we could migrate to someplace delightfully tropical. Well, we can. I recently visited a place that’s always nice and toasty, filled with moist air, green plants, and exotic species, and is only an hour or so from my home—the Denver Zoo.
Bird World consists of a series of three large, sky-lit rooms, each with its own assortment of brightly colored birds from around the world. The rooms are sized so that you don’t need binoculars to get a good look. Natural surroundings encourage natural behaviors, even courting, nesting and raising young. Because the birds aren’t in cages, there are no bars between you and your subjects, making this a great place to take pictures. Connecting these rooms are wide hallways where more birds live in glass-fronted enclosures.
It was almost 5 am, well below freezing, and I was clumsily trying to attach my camera to my tripod with gloved fingers. The last of the stars had finally given way to the growing light in the eastern sky, but the sun wouldn’t be up for a while yet.
A class of a dozen photography students arrived and began setting up their cameras next to me. Their fancy lenses dwarfed mine. Not for the first time, I wondered what in the world I was doing here!
Of course, I’d love to be back in bed sound asleep, or at least in the coffee shop with a nice hot cup of tea, but 50,000 snow geese, glistening white in their winter plumage, were sleeping on the wetlands in front of me. At some point in the next hour or so, the growing daylight would reach a critical intensity, and the entire flock would lift off as one, circle overhead, and then fly off into the new day. I wasn’t about to miss it.
When I first encountered the term “Birding Trail,” a mental image flashed into my mind of a migrating flock trudging down the road, heading south with their suitcases tightly grasped in their wings. Turns out that wasn’t quite right.
Birding trails are actually comprised of a series of birding hotspots (places where birds are known to congregate) connected by a driving route. You pick up the map, hop in the car, and set off on your birding adventure.
Texas started the whole idea several years ago with the establishment of the Texas Coastal Birding Trail. A special map marks out the route, and signs along the highway indicate where to pull over, take a break, and look for birds. The concept is so popular that half the states have followed suit, and birding trails abound.
My birding trip this past weekend reads just like a novel… with goals to be achieved, suspense and uncertainty, good times, and a climatic ending.
I woke two minutes before my alarm was set to go off, groped in the dark for my glasses, and crawled from beneath the covers, shivering as my feet hit the floor. It will be worth it, I told myself. It always is.
Forty minutes later I was on the interstate heading south. The car was loaded with my camera and accessories, scope and tripod, binos, ID books, water lunch, and snacks. The sun, still below the horizon, was just turning the tips of the mountains pink, while the dissipating mist hung like golden glitter in the air. What a beautiful morning!
Reaching our rendezvous point, I joined six other birders as we piled into two cars and headed south again. My primary goal for the day was to enjoy God’s creation and have fun. I was also hoping to take at least one photo I would be happy with. And, there was the possibility of seeing a new bird. While my life list isn’t all that long, I don’t get new birds very often, especially near home. The advertised list of possible species had included a couple I’d never seen, and I was really hoping one would show up.
You’ve got your binoculars in hand, ID book in one pocket, notebook and pen in another, and your resolutions to be a responsible, ethical birder firmly in place—you are ready to go birding. But, where will you go?
While birds may be found virtually anywhere, they are not evenly distributed across the landscape. When birders discover a place with lots of birds (both in numbers and variety of species) that location is called, in birder-speech, a “hotspot.”
Just as people tend to congregate in places with housing and markets or restaurants, birds have their own favorite hangouts, and for the same reasons. Birds need water, food, and shelter. Any site providing all three is bound to have great birding.
Why would anyone even partly sane choose to go camping in February? This was no trip for sissies. We set up camp at 9,500 ft., on top of a mountain in Colorado. It was definitely cold. One weather website claimed a low of 8º F, much lower than the predicted 16º. While I am a die-hard camper, this was pushing even my limits. So why did I do it? One word: owls.
As I’m sure you know, owls are active at night. Therefore, if you want to see one, you must become a night-owl too. And, if you’re going to be up that late, you might as well spend the night. At least, that was the theory.
Why this time of year? Owls are early nesters. They are currently flirting with one another, pairing up (sometimes with last year’s mate), claiming territories, and in general, going about the business of making baby owls. (Ornithologists explain that the predilection for winter nests produces hatchlings just when most rodents are having their litters, ensuring plenty of small, newborn prey for the owlets.)
A birding friend is doing a survey (part of Colorado’s Breeding Bird Atlas II project) to determine which bird species are breeding on her assigned quadrant at, you guessed it, 9,500 ft. elevation in the Pike National Forest of Colorado. She needed to go count owls. Well, we couldn’t let her go all by herself, could we? So we packed our hot cocoa and hand warmers and set off. Continue reading “A Memorable Owling Trip”