Winter Wanderland – 10,000 Birds

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It is mid-March and I am back in Colorado for meetings. Of course, excellent opportunity to go birding with my friends Brad and Laura. Before the meetings started we had three glorious days of seeking out what we started calling “red-faced rascals” – the series of finches that look like they have been dipped in raspberry coulis. My colleague Doug wrote me an email describing the whereabouts of these “rosy finches” and my wife had to manage my excitement with horse tranquilizer… What a fantastic little birds.

I flew into Denver from Mexico. I might have to add the Dallas airport staff to the list of things Buffon was right about. A bit of rain caused a two-hour delay on the flight in and, on my way back to Europe, they couldn’t find the airplane (clue: big metal thing with wings). If birders were as inept finding flying things our life lists would be very short indeed.

We would leave straight from the airport to the mountains so I had put on the birding clothes and looked like an army veteran. Good thing: I was given priority boarding. The “thank you for your service” felt undeserved though. Of course, I made that up. What is 100% true is the flight number I took into Denver: 420. I was high and happy, not from “420” drugs but from the altitude and the anticipation of seeing woodpeckers and owls I had never seen before. Alas, those sightings will be for another time as the weather had thrown a spanner in the works: half a meter of snow had closed off our intended destination. In the spirit of Denver 420 we were so mellow and chill that we cried but a single tear. While doing a quick tour of Ralston Creek, we made alternative plans, or better: we decided to let fortune lead us. Whenever we could physically reach a “birdy” place we’d go and check it out. 

Next day, first stop – really to get some wins after the disappointment of the cancelled plans – was reliable Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR. Late summer 2023 the lakes and ponds had been empty, presumably because the ducks and geese were moulting. Empty no more, the ponds were now brimming with ducks of all creeds and persuasions – it was spectacular. Large groups of Hooded MerganserRedheadFranklin’s Gull, and other floaters were easily spotted.

If there were such a thing as a Periodic Table of Ducks we went from hydrogen to uranium: every duck imaginable was there. After a pleasant morning with ducks, crisp snow and sunshine, we followed the wildlife trail on our way out. We admired the Bison in the frozen fields and saw a juvenile Golden Eagle which was both beautiful and a lifer for my hosts.

We slushed through the paths at the Audubon Center & Trails in the Chatfield State Park to get to the feeders. Our hopes on this second stop for the day were cruelly squashed as the feeders had little to offer. However, there was a very confiding Cooper’s Hawk happily kek-kek-kekking. I think he was laughing at us.

Final stop for the day, Tucker Lake. This urban reservoir does seem to warrant a quick visit according to the eBird listings although we saw few birds and nothing new compared to what we already had seen earlier in the day. Not worth a detour, but when in the vicinity, do check it out.

We returned home for a good dinner with friends, some wine and a night dreaming of raspberry coulis, puppies and ducks. Rising before dawn and on our way up through the one mountain pass that had been cleared of snow. Our goal was the usually very busy Staunton State Park. We were lucky and early so we had the tracks to ourselves. Unlike the day before at Audubon, the tracks were easy-going (aren’t those state park rangers amazing?). Soon Steller’s Jay, both Downy and Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch and White-breasted Nuthatch were everywhere. The snow seemed to amplify the sounds and I thought I heard Tchaikovsky’s music. Since it wasn’t Christmas and we were definitely not in a ballet theater this could only mean one thing: Clark’s Nutcracker. This is a simple grey and black bird but I have always wanted to see one. And now I did. It is also bird 2100 on my life list. Chuffed to bits!

Our internet research showed that somebody in Pine County had all three (Black, Brown-capped, and Gray-crowned) Rosy Finches on the feeders in their garden. We drove to the location, but stranded 200 meters before our intended goal in a forest of menacing “no trespassing” signs. My hosts, obviously knowing their countrymen better than I do, strongly advised me not to get out of the car. Instead, we should head back to civilisation. Usually not one to chicken out, the worried and concerned looks on their faces told me not to ignore the advice. These Coloradans are apparently armed and dangerous. Naturally, when I spoke with another birder he told me I was stupid not to have walked up – after all what is the worst that could have happened? However, birders’ patron saint Saint Gall rewarded my obedience and my hosts’ common sense with a sighting of not one, but two Townsend’s Solitaires while on our way down. The same Townsend’s Solitaire I dipped on last time in Colorado.

We had time for another stop at Little Scraggy Trailhead. Although there was a person determined to go camping (why?) the trails were empty. We walked through the deep snow – no shoveling park rangers here – and got onto a flock of Red Crossbills almost immediately. We were happy enough for we were getting reasonable views. My hosts could confidently tick off the species on their life list. However, a mere 10 minutes later we got another male Red Crossbill singing from the top of a pine tree. That was undoubtedly the sighting of the day – this striking red bird in a white and dark green landscape. Coming down from the emotional high we noticed our grumbling stomachs: time to eat.

I am not a fan of American restaurants. The fast-food joints are boring and the top-line restaurants do weird things like “our take on tiramisu” which translates into “we have taken out all essential ingredients and made a load of [expletive deleted] rubbish“. However, go back to the fifties and have lunch at a diner and you get quite the All American Experience. We stopped at Rosie’s Diner. Honest food in a fifties’ diner while reminiscing about all those movies you have seen about diners in the fifties. I can recommend it.

We ended the day and the weekend with a quick visit to the Norman D Park. Junco Junction would have been a better name – the Dark-eyed Juncos were abundant. We got at least three sub-species but the highlight was a Wilson’s Snipe we flushed.

Although careful preparation, sophisticated intel from real ornithologists and a lot of planning had been derailed by half a meter of snow, we ended up scoring 63 species over the weekend. I ticked off 9 lifers. We also saw Prairie Dogs, Bison, Mule Deer, Abert’s Squirrel and Coyote. All bird and animal pictures are Brad’s. I am very grateful for both his artistry and his driving.

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