Archive for the ‘local birding’ Category


January closeout

January 31, 2006

Some highlights from today’s end-of-January outing, which like the rest of this month felt more like April than mid-winter….

First up, a White-crowned Sparrow, which I found cavorting with some juncos along the Poudre River trail just north of Mulberry in Fort Collins…

A late-morning Wood Duck at Prospect Ponds, one of 4 males and 2 females there…

A male Belted Kingfisher, at the southernmost of the Prospect Ponds, just north of the water treatment plant…

And now the lovely female…

A Greater White-fronted Goose, amidst a bevy of Cackling/Canada Geese at the pond just south of the ELC. Damn those heat waves, which made it hard for me to get a non-blurry shot….

And lastly, at Cottonwood Hollow, a partial albino Canada Goose.

The sparrow photo was taken with my digital SLR; the rest were digiscoped.


All in a day’s birding

January 7, 2006

Last Thursday I had one of my best birding days since Costa Rica. And I didn’t even have to leave town.

At the crack of dawn I headed over to Rachel Hopper’s home to see a Pine Warbler that’s been a regular visitor at her feeders the past couple weeks. She had advised a prompt 7:30am arrival (I arrived at 7:20), since that’s about when the bird always seems to show up. When I got there we went to her back window and she said to wait for the American Goldfinches first, which always presage its arrival. And sure enough, as if on parade, the Goldfinches showed up, and made their way down from the treetops slowly to the feeders. They even did so despite a Bald Eagle roosting higher up in the branches. We then waited for the Pine Warbler to make his entrance down low, and after about 10-15 minutes, there it was, a hardy male. A State bird for me. Woohoo!

Eurasian Collared-Dove, Jan 5, 2005, Fort CollinsNext, I headed over to Prospect Ponds, about 3 miles away, to look for Barrow’s Goldeneye. I found a huge raft of waterfowl on the pond closest to Prospect Rd, but no Barrow’s. I did spot a Green-winged Teal and a pair of Wood Ducks. And as I went down the road later to check out the other ponds, I came across a Eurasian Collared-Dove perched on a branch above the bike trail. “Just” a Year bird, of course, but still, it was close and easy to see, and I got my best shot of this species for my photo collection.

By 9ish I headed over to Mulberry and LeMay to look for the Northern Waterthrush, originally found by Cole Wild about 3 weeks ago along the Poudre River Trail and re-found right after New Year’s by neighbor Nick. I had only a rough idea of where to find this bird, so I had to employ my bird intuition. “If I were a Waterthrush, where would I hang out?” A short ways up the trail from Mulberry, there was a discharge outlet on the far side of the river next to the water treatment plant, with relatively warm water cascading out of it. The water flowed by some riprap rocks and there was a dead branch jumble at the waterline about 5-10 yards downstream of the outlet. “Hmmm, that seems like a good place for a waterthrush. This must be it.” So I parked my scope there and waited to see if something might show up.

I saw a flutter over on the far side near the riprap. I looked anxiously – could that be it? The bird had gone behind the dead branches. A minute later the bird revealed itself to be…a Song Sparrow. Harrumph. Stupid Sparrow. Had me going there for a minute. That’s just so weird – it seems like a great place for a Waterthrush to be. Where is it? Why just a boring ol’ Song Sparrow? I waited a little longer, still scanning the riprap. Then, in the lower corner of my field-of-view, another flutter. Oh my god. There it is! Northern Waterthrush, a new Life bird for me! And here it is, in Fort Collins, in the first week of January. I strung together a stream of expletives, as I often do either when I’m upset or deliriously happy. I was thrilled to have found this bird by myself, based on just some intuition (and well, reasoning) on where it might be. A personal accomplishment in any case.

High off the success I’d just had, I headed home and unpacked all my birding toys. I went online to read the COBirds mailing list, and what’s that? Chris Warren reported a Black Brant in the softball fields of Poudre High School just a mile or so north of my house! I’ve been looking for a Brant for about 3 months now, with no luck. “It’s so close, it’s worth a shot.” So off I went again, repacking my birding toys into the truck.

Now, he’d reported the bird a couple hours ago, so I knew it wasn’t likely to still be in those fields. Geese tend not to tarry too long in any given field. And sure enough, when I got there, no geese. Hmmm. Time for more of that bird intuition. “If I were a Brant, and I’d been in this field a couple hours ago, where would I have gone?” Well, after some feeding in a field, I’d look for some open water. The fact that I’m well inside an urban area suggests that I’m not likely to fly all that far to find it, and the closest ponds around are College Lake up in the foothills, or City Park Lake just a mile from here.

Brant, Jan 5 2006, Fort CollinsNow, College Lake is closed off to the public, so I could only try City Park Lake. I got there and saw about 300 or so geese on it, which was promising. I got the scope out and started scanning, hoping that it would jump out at me. After about 5 minutes, it did! Beautiful – about the size of a Cackling Goose, but with that gorgeous chocolate brown neck and head, and white necklace. Another new State bird for me, that had eluded me several times back in November and December. The day was just getting better and better.

Brant, Jan 5 2006, Fort CollinsI hauled the scope a little closer to its mid-pond island hangout, by which time it made its way to shore with about 60 other Canada/Cackling geese to feed. I digiscoped this shot of it for a nice closeup, to cap off this terrific birding day. It was a gorgeous weather day, but I decided not to bird anymore – I wanted to end on a very high note, and not run the risk of disappointment after so much success. I don’t get days like that too often, so why tempt fate and spoil it?


Cool Birds 2: the Great Horned Owl

December 10, 2005

We are blessed here in North America with one of the most fearsome as well as evocative birds – the Great Horned Owl. It is a familiar bird to most people, and yet probably only few have ever had the opportunity to witness them in closer quarters. They are by no means rare, but they are rarely seen or heard by the population at large – in most cases you do have to go looking for them to see them, often at night. The good part is that when you do see them, you will be enchanted by those huge forward-facing yellow eyes staring at you. And even if you don’t see them, just hearing their hoots, especially if you’re camping in the woods and you wake up to hear them at 4am as I have, can be just as exciting. There’s something inexpressibly haunting about knowing there are highly skilled hunters prowling the tree canopy in the dead of night.

The Great Horned Owl belongs to the Family Strigidae, the “typical owls”. This is a fairly large family, consisting of over 160 species worldwide, of which 18 live in North America. The Great Horned is not actually the largest North American owl (Snowy and Great Gray Owls are larger), but it is pretty large as owls go. They are most familiar for their resonant low-pitched hoot calls, which are what most people imagine owl calls to be – usually, two rapid hoots, followed by 2-4 slower hoots. They are nocturnal hunters, preferring to feed mostly on small mammals like rodents ands rabbits; passerine birds and sometimes game birds like quail or pheasant; and other small critters like lizards or scorpions. However, they are also capable of taking down even larger prey like skunks – at the RMRP we recently admitted a GHOW that anyone with a sense of smell would know had just been feeding on one. Great Horneds will also prey upon other birds of prey, especially their nestlings. I’ll discuss shortly how they manage to do that effectively.

Great Horned Owl, Oct 16 2005First, a couple images I’ve captured. Last September I snapped this shot of a GHOW at Cottonwood Hollow, just off Prospect Rd in Fort Collins near the Poudre River. It was kind enough to light onto a branch only yards from the trail, but as you can see it gave me the evil eye as I edged gingerly toward it for a closer look. Even though they are largely nocturnal, Great Horneds can be active during the day too, as this one was. One possibility is that this one was looking for a new nest site. GHOWs don’t build their own nests, but rather seek abandoned ones belonging to other large birds. They can also nest in tree cavities, crevices, or stumps.

Great Horned Owl with 4 chicks, April 17, 2005Speaking of nest sites – earlier in April while on a trip with the RMRP, I got this unfortunately blurry shot of a nesting GHOW in Frank State Wildlife Area, east of Fort Collins. Not easy to see, but there are 4 nestlings being watched over – an unusually high number for the species, which normally raise no more than 3 at a time. Our trip leaders remarked that this wasn’t the only fruitful nest they’d seen recently. Apparently last spring was a good one for Great Horneds here.

The definitive outward physical feature of GHOWs is their ear tufts, often called horns, but technically referred to as plumicorns. They are the source of this bird’s common English name, but these tufts are not actually associated with its ears. Owl ears are located on the sides of their heads, asymmetrically, so that they are better able to pinpoint sound direction with utmost precision, especially at night. The tufts, on the other hand, serve as both mood communicators to other owls (they can be erected or lowered), and as “shape interruptors”, a useful adaptation that makes it harder for prey to identify them as a predatory bird. The idea here is that the “horns” make it more likely that a prey item will not recognize the body shape of the owl, if, say, it is perched nearby in low light.

One of the reasons GHOWs do as well as they do is that their nesting cycle starts considerably earlier than many other birds – some breed as early as January. Their thick plumage and diverse feeding habits allow them to overwinter in colder climes, and to survive late winter freezes. This basically gives their young, who are fledged by March or April, a head start on any other nesting birds in their area, making it all the easier to prey on them and especially their young. Their prey list includes not only small owls, but even the young of other birds of prey like Osprey or Red-tailed Hawks. This early breeding is a remarkable adaptation which helps us understand why their range is as large as it is – an expansive diet increases options especially in places where specific food sources are highly cyclical.

Another reason GHOWs do well, and one reason they are such a cool bird, is that their feathers come with an amazing feature whereby the barbs on the leading edge of the flight feathers are especially long and well-separated. This serves to reduce turbulence and therefore wing noise while in flight – a silencer, if you will. The reduction in flight noise is dramatic – while tending to GHOWs in the large flights (cages) at the RMRP, I’m stunned by how silent those that fly overhead from one high perch to the other are, even while flapping. Not only does this allow them to hear their prey more easily, it gives them an extra stealth factor while honing in on their target. This feature isn’t unique to Great Horneds – in fact it is present in many owls, and even some nightjars – but it is one that for them has evolved to perfection.

Just because a bird is familiar doesn’t mean it can’t also be a cool bird. The Great Horned Owl is a perfect example of that – we in North America should be thrilled to have them right here lurking in our own neighborhoods.


A Lesser would have been more

December 4, 2005

I got excited for a moment this morning when I saw this bird at my feeder:

American Goldfinch (F)

The Lesser Goldfinch is a very rare occurrence in Colorado in the winter. But when I lived in California, goldfinches of either type were ho-hum birds even in the winter. I never spent much time trying to learn the subtle differences between Lessers and Americans when I lived there.

But this time, I had to school myself fast on the subject, at least until I remembered to get the camera. I wanted so much to make this female into a Lesser, but after a while I had to admit that the darkish bill wasn’t enough to overcome the light undertail coverts, the prominent wing bars, and the largish size for a goldfinch, all of which point strongly to American. Still, occasions like this are good exercises for me, forcing me to crack open Sibley (and Petersen et al.) and really learn the birds. I’ve now taken to heart an adage I overheard last September at Prewitt Reservoir, while among birders looking for a Curlew Sandpiper amid a slew of Stilts: “Look at every bird.”

Excellent advice.


Best Backyard Bird (so far)

November 25, 2005

Late one afternoon back in late September, a fluttering bird caught my eye through the kitchen window to our backyard. We have a finch feeder back there, and I’m accustomed to seeing House Finches and House Sparrows frequenting it, but something told me right away that this bird, furtively moving around the ivy, was different. I waited for it to move again, and muttered “Oh oh oh oh oh oh !” while scrambling to find my binocs and my camera. Cindy wondered what the hubbub was, so I told her it was a migrating thrush, the first one I’d ever seen in our yard.

We’ve been here for about a year, and we generally don’t get too many really interesting birds back there. The highlights so far have been Townsend’s Solitaires, a first-year male Black-Headed Grosbeak, Pine Siskins, a short-lived invasion of Common Grackles, and an inquisitive scolding flock of House Wrens. But this handsome Hermit Thrush was a welcome addition. I photographed it with my Canon XT Digital Rebel with 300mm telephoto, through a glass door (not what I’d have liked, but I didn’t want to spook the bird – thrushes are easily disturbed).

This bird hung around for about 15-20 minutes, looking around curiously, and remaining wonderfully calm. That helped because I did have to spend several minutes studying it with Sibley in hand, making sure it was indeed a Hermit and not a Swainson’s (or even some unlikely variety like Gray-Cheeked) Thrush. I based my ID on its reddish-tinged tail (not seen in this photo, but in others), the lack of buffy wash on the breast, an overall squat appearance (Hermits are slightly chunkier-looking than Swainson’s), and that the breast marks are sharper and not as smudgy as other brown thrushes.

It’s nice when you can add a Colorado Life bird and a Year bird without leaving your house.