Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Have you ever found yourself reflecting on life and wondered where all the time has gone since the last time you got outside and went for a hike?
Do you have outdoor gear that has gathered more dust than mud recently?
Have you ever noticed that you are watching a college football game with rapt attention between two schools you may or may not have heard of before in the middle of a Saturday afternoon?

I found myself in exactly that position this past fall and decided that I had to do something about it. That is where the birding comes in.

Let me back up a few steps and introduce myself. My name is Dave. I live in Colorado, in the city and county of Broomfield, which lies just between the better known cities of Denver and Boulder. It may pale in comparison, but it is home, and we do have our own professional hockey and basketball teams. Go Rage! I never tire of observing, exploring, and generally being blown away by the world around me, which is fairly easy to do in Colorado.
Real life and my diverse interests often keep me from those experiences that totally immerse me in nature. I have a degree in history, a career in IT and telecommunications, and diverse hobbies that all vie for my time. Often those interests, along with football and hockey seasons, and the routine of life's necessities leave me at my desk on a Monday morning wondering where my weekend went and why the time flew by.

All that lead to a beautiful October evening this past fall when I was in the backyard idly tossing a ball for my roommate's golden-retriever Blizzard. As I was appreciating a typical Front-Range sunset I heard a sound that made me pause.

It sounded like a large rope was being swung very rhythmically somewhere in the neighborhood, except that it was getting louder. I recognized it for wing beats before I saw anything, but new they were coming...and then they were above me. 20 large birds in a double legged "v", about thirty feet above the rooftops, similar in size to Canadian Geese, but definitely not Canadian Geese.

I was hooked. As stated above I have always loved nature, the great outdoors, and seeing those unexpected events that remind a person they are a part of a large, wild world. That moment was just such an event.
I knew I had seen something that was new to me, and not knowing what I had seen began to dig at me.

A bit of background....

While never a birder I have had some experience with the observation of birds. I grew up in Minnesota, and always enjoyed our variety of feeder visitors around the house. When I was a younger kid my family hosted an exchange student from Europe. He happened to be a birder of some renown there, even as a teenager. As my family showed him as much of our state and country as we could, he opened my eyes to the variety of species we had to offer. Hikes with him were my first experience with using binoculars to pick out hidden detail on birds, and his telescopic lens was a thing I marveled at.
I was a Boy Scout throughout my school years, and did reach the rank of Eagle Scout. The experiences related to scouting were fundamental to my appreciation of nature as well as teaching me essentials of camping, hiking, and outdoor survival. Reaching the rank of Eagle made that bird a personal symbol for me. Not only does it instill the patriotic feelings as a symbol of America, but also is a reminder of childhood accomplishments, and the lessons I learned about perseverance and commitment as a young man. I still feel a rush when I catch a view of a Bald Eagle soaring, or sitting patiently with a view over a scenic body of water.
Finally, my sister had the good fortune to meet and eventually marry a fine man who happens to be a Doctor of Biology, with his focus guessed it....Ornithology. We have enjoyed some great hikes together, and I have appreciated his ability to site and identify various species on the fly.
Back to October...
Relying on my limited experience listed above, I began to try to name the large goose like birds that had just buzzed my head in spectacular fashion. I started with the obvious, Canadian Goose. They are large, migratory birds that fly in "v"s and tend to migrate through Colorado in the fall. Having seen many tens of thousands of them in my lifetime, I know them well, and happen to recognise their "honking" cries. These birds did not honk. The calls they made were closer to what I would describe as a pigeon "coo"-ing than the "honk" of a goose. I had also noted that their necks looked longer as they flew by than those of a goose, their legs trailed behind them in flight, and that something about the coloring was not right, although the moment had passed, and I could not put my finger on it.
I thought about it at the moment, and my best guess at the time was a swan. I knew migrant Trumpeter Swans were seen in Nebraska at certain times of the year, but I had no idea if they ever got as far west as the Front Range. I also knew that they were rare, and if I remembered correctly, they had been on the Endangered Species list. I didn't know what else it could have been, but I knew it was something different and it had fired up my curiosity.
Shortly thereafter I took some downtime at work to search the web for possible birds in my area at that time of year that may have been flying over my house. My searches were clumsy. I had no known resources to work from. But the thrill of discovery was upon me.

Much of that particular question was solved in my overall birding experiences to be outlined in my next post. I won't break down all of the clues along the way.

I quickly determined that a Tundra Swan would be far more likely than a Trumpeter Swan in my area.

I also learned that while that was more likely it was also a fairly rare sighting, and a migration that would have been late in my area at the time I had sighted the flock.

After giving up on being able to positively identify the birds that had driven me back to birding I was planning my first birding specific trip out of state. The plan was to head south, and catch up to some of those migrants who had flown over my state before I had the decency to be looking for them.

As I looked at possible locations in New Mexico, I searched species that were likely to be in the locations I planned to visit.
There among the lists I found a new suspect for my unidentified birds. Sandhill Cranes.

They were birds that I had never heard of before, and were not at all the swans that I had tried to make fit my observations. I was still unsure what I had seen, but then I had the good fortune to visit the Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge.

I had the good fortune to see my mystery species once again flying directly overhead. It was a great feeling to know that I had been able to replace the unknown with a name, Sandhill Crane, life list #36.

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