Birding Colorado in the Spring

Colorado is always a wonderful spot to bird as the habitats near Boulder are quite varied, with mountains on one side and the prairies on the other. You would think that we would have had enough birding for a while since we just got back from Panama a bit over two weeks before this trip but is there ever such thing as enough birding?  It was also a family visit as we enjoy seeing our son who lives there, and wouldn’t you know it……. he loves birding as well!
We got the car packed with all our gear and headed west! Its a quick 2000 Km with just one-night stop and before you know it, we were skimming through the prairie habitat of Nebraska and Colorado. On the way as we stopped at rest stops the spring birds were already showing up and we got our first look at a Eurasian Collared dove this trip. These birds were first introduced into North America in the 1980’s and have spread over most of the United States except for the north-east section. They are a bit larger than a Mourning dove and have displaced them in some of their range. They are still very much a rarity in Southern Ontario but do show up in the odd place here each year.

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As you near Boulder the mountains appeared in the background and we noted that there was still snow at the higher elevations. That does limit our mountain travels at times due to roads that are not yet open. Its hard to imagine as you cruise along in 20 C weather and even though we were close to 1600 meters of elevation some of the mountain roads are at 3000 meters thus still covered in snow at this time of the spring.

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As we neared the city, we stopped in at one of our favourite spots near Boulder, Walden Ponds Wildlife habitat! This is a Hotspot for birding on eBird and there have been 285 species seen over the years at this location. In the few times we’ve been there we have seen about 84 species, several of which we don’t see at home in Ontario. In the short 30 minutes we stopped there on the way to our sons house we saw 30 species including Cinnamon teal, American avocet, American white pelican, Long-billed dowitchers and several Wilsons phalaropes to name a few. It’s a nice spot to relax for a few minutes after a 1000 Km drive.

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Leaving the ponds behind we soon arrived at our destination, relaxed and chatted with Scott and started our plans for the next few days. On our list for the next day was Barr Lake State Park which is another hotspot with 337 species seen over the years. We had been there before, and it certainly depends on what time of the day you are there as to what you might see.
The next morning off we went and when we arrived at the park, we knew it wasn’t going to be a banner day as the water level in the lake  was high limiting the shorebird habitat. It was a good day to be out walking anyway after two days of being in the car driving. The treat of the day was a Barn owl that was having a sleep in a tree along the boardwalk. It wasn’t about to wake up and pose for us but it was a special moment anyway. This was our first Barn owl in the wild.

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There were also several Swainson’s hawks cruising overhead at one time and it was interesting to see the variations in the colour of some of these hawks.

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These hawks are common to the prairies in the spring and summer and winter in South America and Central America. They are about the same size as the Red-tailed hawk but have slightly longer wings.
Even though Canada geese are common and at times are a bit of a nuisance its always fun to watch a new family as the gosling’s paddle around learning what to eat. This was the first family we had seen so they definitely warranted a photo. Its good to get them at this early stage as they grow quickly and lose that fluffy little cuddly look quite soon!

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Since our time in Colorado was a bit limited, we got on the road again and headed for another birding hotspot in the area. Soon we arrived at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Reserve and took a slow tour around the 11-mile drive. The Black-tailed Prairie dogs are abundant in this habitat and kept an eye on us as we passed by their burrows. Often you would hear their alarm call as the car got close to their burrow

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or if a hawk cruised overhead. In this area we saw Red-tailed, Ferruginous and Swanson’s hawks keeping a watch over their territories.

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One of the other common birds seen here is the Western meadowlark. You could usually hear them before you spotted them and on looking around you would see one in the distance perched on a weed or a cactus. These birds differ slightly from the Eastern variety that were used to seeing in Ontario. The yellow at the base of the lower mandible on the Western is usually whiter than on the Eastern species but can have some variations making it tough to see this difference. The tail feathers on the Western meadowlark are much lighter than on the Eastern but usually it’s where in the country you are that will give you the best idea as to what species of Meadowlark you are looking at.

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One of our main reasons for checking out this birding spot was to see the Burrowing owl and although there weren’t many in view, we did manage distant views of half a dozen. They use Prairie dog burrows as their homes, so you have to look carefully at what is standing outside of each burrow. It could be a Prairie dog, or it could be an owl. They are about the same size and colour and from a distance are a bit tough to differentiate. This is one of the Burrowing owls we managed to get a distance photo of.

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They eat mainly insects and small rodents but in turn are prey for larger owls, coyotes, foxes, badgers, weasels and hawks so they must be constantly on the watch. This year many of the birds and animals we saw here were at too great a distance for good photos but some of the species seen were, Redhead, Canvasback, Ferruginous hawk, American kestrel, Say’s phoebe, Western kingbird and meadowlark, and many Vesper sparrows.     Most places you go in Colorado you will come across a few Black-billed magpie. These are large black and white birds in the same family as Jays and Crows. Often, they were gliding from shrub to shrub seeing what insects they might scare up. Although one photo we got isn’t crisp it gives you an idea as to how birds can control their feathers during take-off or hazard avoidance. This magpie was leaving quickly as we approached in the

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vehicle. This view below is the more normal one you would have of the magpies as they sit on a branch deciding where to hunt next.

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The next day of our trip was a hike at Walden Ponds with the Boulder Birding Club. It’s interesting that this club has the same initials as the Bruce Birding Club of which we are members in Ontario and their mascot bird is also the Black-capped chickadee. About 25 of us met in the morning and headed out on the trails around the several ponds that make up the wildlife habitat. One of the highlights of the hike was a Harris sparrow. There was a lot of interest in this bird from the group as it’s a rare bird to see in Colorado as it also is in Ontario. Its range is actually between these two locations and at this time of year somewhat more to the north. They breed in the far north of Canada so the only opportunity to see them either here or in Ontario is during their spring or fall migration as they move through the area. The sparrow could be heard calling but was difficult to find sitting in the brambles quite still. It just wasn’t cooperating for a clear photograph.

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The oldest recorded Harris sparrow was captured and released again in Kansas in 1983. It had been banded 11 years and 8 months previously in this same sate. Too bad it hadn’t posed as nicely as this Northern Rough-winged swallow that was foraging near a small creek. These are common swallows across the United States and southern Canada.

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As our hike day wound down, we found we had seen a total of 52 species in the Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat location. As we had more time ahead of us after the hike was over, we got some food for dinner and headed over to the Boulder Reservoir complex to see what might be in or around the reservoir. There weren’t many birds close to us on the water, but we did see Cinnamon and Green-winged teal, Gadwall, Mallards, Bufflehead and of course some Canada geese. We heard an American bittern in the evening but couldn’t get a view of the bird as it hid in the reeds. A Great-horned owl and two of its young were in a tree down towards the water and although the lighting was a bit poor we got a couple of quick photos.

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Another day in Colorado had come to an end with 28 species in the Reservoir complex area.
Scott was busy at meetings the next day, so we went for a walk around some local ponds and paths. We didn’t see any new birds but got to see some new birding spots and become more familiar with the Boulder area. In one of the ponds a Spiny Softshelled turtle was swimming along beside us keeping an eye on us. Colorado is close to the western limit of this turtle’s range, so it was interesting to see this turtles head above the water as it moved along in the water beside us.

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The next day the three of us jumped in the car and headed off towards Chico Basin Ranch to see what wildlife would show up for us there. It is an operational cattle ranch but also welcomes visitors to follow its trails and enjoy the wildlife found there. We had visited the ranch in previous years and found it had quite a varied habitat. On the way to the ranch we stopped along Squirrel Creek road as Mountain plovers have been known to breed in that area. Unlike their name indicates Mountain plovers live in dry shortgrass prairie areas away from water. Unfortunately, on this hot day we didn’t get to see any of the plovers, but Lark sparrows were abundant and perched on the fences as they tried to cool off in the breeze. These two show the distinct pattern with the chestnut stripes on the head.

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In the company of the sparrows Lark buntings also made an appearance in numbers along the roads and fields. This is the State bird of Colorado, so it was nice to see both male and female foraging in the scrub along the edges of the fields.

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A Pine siskin stopped by to have a few seeds from one of the weeds along the side of the road. We always think of these more as winter birds at home but seeing it out on a HOT day in the prairie was quite different.

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At one of the ponds on the property we came across some Spotted sandpipers as they had gathered in some numbers. It was our first time seeing a log full of sandpipers. This is another bird we always think about being near lots of wetlands, but it appears all they need is a small pond or two to keep themselves happy.

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Even though we have been at this ranch before the variety of birds we see seems to be different each time. One of the more common species we saw this time was the Scaled quail. Several places we went we would see these birds scuttling through the grass as they tried to evade our views.

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You can certainly see from the feather pattern on these birds how they got their name. Colorado is near the north most part of their range but in this area, they seem to be doing quite well. Western kingbirds were also plentiful and this one we saw near a cactus sat long enough for us to capture the photo.

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When these birds show up in Ontario they are quite an attraction for birders as they are fairly rare in the east. Another interesting bird of the prairies and cactus is the Curved-bill thrasher. This is close to the northern part of this birds range as well but again

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we saw several while we drove on the trails around this ranch. Soon it was time to head to Canyon City but during our trip to Chico Basin we saw 63 species including Bullocks oriole, Loggerhead shrike, Green-tailed towhee, Lincolns sparrow, several species of ducks, 7 species of shorebirds as well as the ones mentioned above. It was another good day on the prairies.
We stayed at an air B&B in Canyon City that night so we could go for a drive through the mountains before getting back to Boulder. In the morning on a walk along the river we saw a Black phoebe, Western tanager, Lazuli bunting, as well as this Black-headed grosbeak. Two of these birds were lifers for us.

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As we drove along our route, we tried to stop every so often to see what birds were in the area. At one point we had to stop for a few minutes for construction on the road and as we checked the trees out along the side of the road, we saw three Lewis woodpeckers.

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Two of them were mating so they must live in this area as well. These are the types of chance encounter that always makes the day special. We would never have seen them if not for that road construction. A Woodhouse Scrub jay wasn’t sitting around for any photo op, but we did get a view before it zipped off into the scrub brush beside the road. A bit farther on a Yellow-breasted chat caught our attention with its loud song and bright yellow breast. It kept its distance, but we did manage a distant photo for our records.

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Other birds we saw along our mountainous route were Pygmy nuthatches, Mountain chickadees, Western and Mountain bluebirds, Western grebes, Broad-tailed hummingbird and an Orange-crowned warbler. The 36 species we saw along our drive brought us up to 117 different species for our trip so far.
Our Colorado trip was coming to an end so the last full day there we visited more than birded but still saw a few more birds at Walden ponds early in the morning. A Willet, White-faced ibis, Western Wood-Pewee, Plumbeous and Warbling vireo, and a Common Yellowthroat brought our total species for the week-long trip up to 123. It had been another great Colorado visit and lots of fun visiting and birding with our son.
Friday morning, we packed up and headed east towards home and a week long rest before the Huron Fringe Birding Festival arrived for another year. That particular festival runs for two 4-day weekends in late May and early June and has almost 100 events to chose from. We always say we’ll limit our hikes a bit, but we enjoy them so much we’re up early each morning and go for both 4-day weekends.
Keep tuned for more interesting bird news from us as our blog continues.

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