Monday, March 1, 2010

Morgan County Day Trip

On Saturday I decided to undertake a self-guided birding excursion. It was to be the better of the two weekend days, and I wanted a chance to really get out and enjoy the high plains environment, beyond the urban sprawl of the Front Range corridor. Flipping blindly through my Colorado atlas, and doing a bit of reading on the Colorado Field Ornithologists' birding website, I decided to head out to Morgan County for the day.
Morgan County is a 'smallish', rectangular county in Northeastern Colorado. It is the next step east from my large, neighboring counties of Weld and Adams. The county features a state park on a good sized reservoir, a well developed agricultural and commerce corridor bordering the South Platte River, and it is handily located along interstate I-76 - making getting there a snap.

My first stop, and main birding area, was Jackson Reservoir State Park. Having left my home at just after 7:00, I was pulled in and counting birds before 9:00. My first sighting in the park itself was a male Ring-necked Pheasant. A good sign of things to come, but on this outing the photography was taking a back seat. I was trying to lean a bit more on my ears and bins first, and get shots as an afterthought. It was a good decision, when I got back that evening I found that my sensor had somehow picked up a collection of dust to rival the area beneath my bed - yuck. Despite that there were a few pictures worth sharing, and species that didn't make the cut.
Above were a group of gulls taken from the pier on the west side of the lake. It was near an area of open water that had some great birds hanging out. Before getting to the gulls in the picture believe me when I say that my report of 48 Bald Eagles was conservative. I had to stop looking for species after I had arrived and just do a sweep of the area to count individuals before they moved around too much. Adding to the impression of the sight was the fact that only 10-15% of the lake was open, so the birds were gathered in a small area of the rather large lake.

Back to the picture above though. I caught the two gulls contesting a catch which was fun, but check out the darker guy on the right - a California Gull. I tallied the California, a good number of Herrings, and of course Ring-billeds at the park. Three gull species, not bad, I guess my gull watches are having some effect.

Gulls are still frustrating though, so lets pause to admire a posed Dark-eyed Junco. "Ah, that's better." The Juncos were part of a loose mixture in the trees as I cam back from the pier. I had American Robins, Mountain and Eastern Bluebirds all interacting with them. The Eastern Bluebirds were the first that I had seen in Colorado.
After checking some of the Russian-Olive groves in that area I met another birding couple who mentioned having had a group of 7 Long-eared owls fly into the trees near them back near the visitor center. I stopped by on my way out of the park. I never saw the owls, but enjoyed this odd moment of nature from the parking lot. Two tom Wild Turkeys were displaying and competing with one another, but were separated by a chain link fence. I have no idea how long the dominance display lasted, or if in a Turkey's mind such a thing can be decided when there is an incomprehensible barrier dividing rivals. It was good for a watch though, and more comical as there was a large opening in the fence just to the left, but these two were so hung up with one another that they may still be there now.

After a very enjoyable time at the park I headed off for my next target - a pair of adjacent parks in Fort Morgan along the South Platte, one of which was appropriately named Riverside Park. A pond there had the full compliment of exotic waterfowl, along with high numbers of both Canada and Cackling Geese. Riverside Park was a bit overdeveloped and crowded on a mild Saturday afternoon, so I headed for the more natural Canfield Park. I had to work for birds, as my walk out was pretty quiet, but eventually birds started appearing. The river itself was strangely dull. I saw 6 Mallards and 11 Killdeer on the banks or in the water, and that was about it. On my return trip I stayed more inland, and was rewarded with more cooperative subjects, like this American Goldfinch.

As I turned from the Goldfinch a Wilson's Snipe exploded from the bank of a fishing pond behind me. A few minutes later a fisherman on the far side flushed it again, and it landed briefly in the open to allow a single shot in the light.

As I walked along I added a pair of Downies and dozens more Red-winged Blackbirds, and got this shot of an Eastern Bluebird posing with the sun at its back.

It was now mid-afternoon, and I had one more area I just had to check out. One of the locations the CFO site listed was a winding county road that cut through the dunes in the southern portion of the county. I wanted this route as it was reported as a great site for raptors, and who doesn't like winding country roads through dunes?
On my way south I picked a road at random from my atlas, county road "Q", and drove east. It was while I was on this road, trying to reach my target while swinging past a SWA, that I witnessed a site that many are inspired by, hundreds of miles away at Bosque del Apache. That site was the rising of thousands of white geese from a reservoir that was dammed immediately to my right. Because the light was fading my pictures were a sad display, but I will be back in the area again to try to do justice to what I was able to witness. Just incredible!
To that end, if any reader happens to know the area, please feel free to reply to let me know if the large processing plant on the south side of that reservoir has any public access to the lake? It is just south of County Rd Q, and west of the Brush Prairie Ponds SWA.
In the fading light I did head on, and reached my target road. I saw no one for ten miles, just two dogs that chased me for a mile or so, and one Red-tail Hawk. I wouldn't have traded the experience though. At one point I stopped to pull a jacket from the back seat, and got out just to listen to the silence. I wasn't rewarded with any sightings, but that didn't matter right then. Finally as I was returning to a paved State Highway and turning back to the interstate in the cloud induced early dusk I had a pair of Harlan's Hawks, one flying and one perched, in my area. A good sighting to wrap up my first of many visits to Morgan County. The hundred Ross's Geese I saw added one life bird to my list in force. I had hoped for photos, but there should be more opportunities as migration approaches.

2010 Count: 70
Lifetime: 207


  1. That was a good day! I'm really impressed with all of the birds in your area.

  2. Excellent birding day! Great amount of birds.