Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Colorado, Day 3: Wetlands and Grasslands

Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat, Boulder, CO
Eager to explore as many different Colorado habitats as I could before leaving, I checked the online records of a local birding club and decided that nearby Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat, a natural area reclaimed from a gravel pit, was my best shot at wetland birdlife.
Very birdy indeed, and also very flooded, perhaps limiting the opportunities to see some species that prefer a slightly marshier environment. It was a good reminder that this part of Colorado is actually a transition zone between east and west, so it felt, in many ways like an east coast wetland. Red-winged blackbirds dominated, and there were yellow warblers, common yellow-throats, warbling vireos, even a black-capped chickadee. Plus magpies and pelicans to remind me exactly where I was.
Start of Pawnee Grasslands Birding Tour
After my conference duties were finished in the afternoon, I headed out to my final stop: Pawnee National Grasslands, rightly deemed "legendary" in some guides. The Folzenlogen guide describes an extensive tour that incorporates the eastern and western areas. I stuck with the shorter and more convenient "Birding Tour" designed by the local Audubon chapter and very well organized and marked.
Lark Bunting
There are some pretty cool birds (longspurs, mountain plovers) supposedly inhabiting these grasslands but lark buntings dominated to such an extent that it was hard to see much else.
Lark Buntings
Not that I minded. The echo-like flight songs of a community of lark buntings is one of birdsong's great musics. Particularly when there are western meadowlarks to provide a little melody. And some distant gunshots (target practice is a popular local activity) for percussion.

The other dominant bird was the horned lark, the young of which littered the gravel road and were a constant concern flying ahead of my car. They were evidently enjoying the great supply of large locusts that also flew ahead of the car and sometimes into the window.
Horned Lark
And western meadowlarks are truly abundant still in this area of the world.
Western Meadowlark
I enjoyed my casual encounters with road-side prairie dogs
Prairie Dog
and the burrowing owls they hang out with.
Burrowing Owl
And, after a long wait, I finally stumbled upon a genuine Swainson's hawk, just sitting on a post, as if on display.
Swainson's Hawk (immature)
I will admit the highlight of the visit was not a bird encounter.
Pronghorn Antelopes
Rather, it was the pronghorn antelopes that would appear in the distance (some with tiny running children)
Pronghorn Antelope
and sometimes rather closely, that made the trip truly exciting.
I left the grasslands heading directly for the airport and quickly found that the recent flooding had left several north-south roads and bridges unusable. After some garmin/iphone map coordination, I was finally able to design a route around the disaster, but I got some glimpses of the terrible wreckage. On the way to airport I saw the most spectacular sunset over the mountains I've ever seen in my life. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Colorado, Day 2: Into the mountains

Elk Meadow,  Jefferson County, CO
Both Pettingill (1953) and Robert Folzenlogen's Birding the Front Range (1995) describe Mt Evans Road as an essential birding trip, so I left before 5 am to make the drive south, with the goal of beating the weekend crowds. First stop was Elk Meadow, in hopes of spotting actual elk
Elk, Elk Meadow
(check). And mountain bluebirds.
Mountain Bluebird, Elk Meadow
(check). Then it was off towards Mt Evans on Squaw (really, Colorado?) Pass Road. "Spectacular" doesn't do justice to the views, particularly on a sunny June morning. You are really in the mountains.
View from Squaw Pass Road
But, as fate would have it, Mt. Evans road was closed (too much snow in May) and all the parking around the gate and nearby Echo Lake was full because of an early morning road race. Turns out I didn't leave nearly early enough...

So it was off to Genesee Park, one of the Denver area mountain parks, described in Pettingill as a superior birding location. Wow, was he right! Immediately, right off the parking lot, a red crossbill, singing from a tree top.

And more spectacular front range views. And I saw a bobcat. 
View from Genesee Park
Favorite bird sight: a pair of long slender Townsend's solitaires flycatching near the bison (unseen) enclosure. 
Townsend's Solitaire pair, Genesee Park
Second favorite sight: a bluebird (Western) and a swallow (Violet-green) fighting over a tree cavity. Sound familiar?
Western Bluebird vs. Violet-green Swallow, Genesee Park
Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were everywhere and impossible to ignore. I was charmed by their flight sounds as they zoomed straight up and down through the air. 
Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Genesee Park
On my way out, I encountered a group of local birders, who told me about a Williamson's sapsucker at a location they called the "condo tree." I tracked down the tree but only got a brief glimpse of the sapsucker as it chased off another bird. Which happened to be one of two pygmy nuthatches, apparently nesting in a cavity.
Pygmy Nuthatch, Genesee Park
One final location, also highlighted in Pettingill: Red Rock Park, a very popular, as it turned out, hiking, jogging, dog-walking, and mountain biking location.
Red Rock Park
In retrospect I regretted starting out at the relatively unfruitful path to Mt Evans. A cooler, less crowded Red Rock Park would have been quite welcome. That said, it was still quite birdy in the late morning, with meadowlarks and towhees in the meadow, and genuine feral rock doves and canyon wrens in the scrubbier parts. There's enough water to satisfy Bullock's orioles
Bullock's Oriole, Red Rock Park
and lazuli buntings. 
Lazuli Bunting, Red Rock Park
And yellow chat listening sessions are readily available. An extremely satisfying morning of birding. The next day would be even more ambitious.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Colorado, Day 1: Brainard Lake Road

Brainard Lake Road, Ward, Colorado
Earlier in the year I had discovered a used copy of Olin Pettingill's 1953 Guide to Birding (West of the Mississippi). In Boulder for the weekend at a conference, I was ready to test whether it still held up. The book detailed a trip down Boulder Canyon Drive to Nederland and then north to Brainard Lake and Mt. Audubon via Peak-to-Peak Highway. So there I went.
Boulder Creek from Boulder Canyon Road
Boulder Canyon Road was my first real introduction to the area and I must say I was blown away. Torrential rains the previous week had caused serious flooding in the area and turned Boulder Creek into raging rapids. But the first stop in the Pettingill guide, Boulder Falls, where one can see dippers and Steller's Jays, was closed because of rockfall hazards. Alas, but there was plenty more to see ahead.

I stopped for a bit at Barker Reservoir, where I had my first of many encounters with a broad-tailed hummingbird, and then headed north up the spectacular Peak-to-Peak Highway. 
Brainard Lake Road
Finally on a very quiet Brainard Lake Road, I was ready for a little safari-style birding. Despite a little bit of rain, I drove slowly with the windows down, hoping to detect something interesting. Almost immediately, a familiar song, but extremely close: hermit thrush.

The local twist: the gargling of a mountain chickadee and the song of a ruby-crowned kinglet. Shortly after, chickadee song joined the chorus. 

I arrived at the gates of Brainard Lake Recreational Area, the only one there. I soaked up the sounds and sights.
Scene of an apparent fire off of the Brainard Lake Recreational Area parking lot
The gate was down halting any further car access. I walked down the road, abandoning dreams of Mt. Audubon and its ptarmigans and rosy-finches described in the Pettingill guide, but delighting in the snowshoe hares that hopped ahead of me. 
Snowshoe Hare
Nearby Red Rock Lake was as scenic a spot as one could want.
Red Rock Lake, with Mallards
There was still snow on the banks, and in addition to mallards, the unexpected bonus of a greater scaup couple. Generally speaking, the birdlife was familiar high altitude stuff with a Western wrinkle: yellow-rumped warblers, but of the Audubon, not Myrtle, variety; dark-eyed juncos, but strange gray and chestnut colored ones; red, not yellow-shafted, flickers. It was cool to see Wilson's warblers on their breeding grounds. And super cool to hear my first Clark's nutcracker, squawking away on a tree top.

In the end, I will have to say, the Pettingill guide held up after 60 odd years. A great introduction to the Boulder area. I would use it again the next day on a trip even deeper into the mountains.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Bluebirds! Season 5. Episode 7. Catastrophe.

(Bereaved?) Tree Swallow, box 18.
Successive days of cold and heavy rain during nesting season. I expected the worst.
Failed box 15
And found it. Dead tree swallow chicks on cold soggy nests in four boxes: 1, 14, 15, 18. I cleared out the nests. Perhaps there's still time to get new broods in.
Tree swallow nestling, box 2.
Meanwhile, other nests (2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 12, 17) are still doing fine. Weather permitting, we will have fledglings over the next couple of weeks.
Eastern Bluebird eggs, box 16
And, best of all, the bluebirds have indeed built over the top of the inactive chickadee nest in box 16. We'll have bluebird stories yet to tell this season!