Friday, February 25, 2011

New Digs

Belted Kingfisher

First bird at the new office, taken with point and shoot as I walked to my car yesterday. A week of non-posting attributed to getting settled at a new office. A week after the move was postponed we were finally moved in this past Monday. Despite the lack of posts I have been getting out at lunch time to visit some locations that are now in my daily "backyard". Lower Church Lake is anywhere from 1-3 minutes by car, depending on lights - and as shown above I am within falling-over distance of the Big Dry Creek Trail system. This week I also explored a new location for myself, Ketner Reservoir, and have spent two days at Standley Lake, one buying my season pass, and one getting in a walk down to the lake.

My photographic efforts have struggled, but I have had some good sightings and will see if I can pull together a compilation post in the next couple of days.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bonny Lake State Park

Recent news that budget restrictions will lead to the closure of Bonny Lake State Park made a decision to head out to eastern Colorado this weekend an easy one. I have heard of this plains migrant trap, but hadn't ever been there. So Saturday was my day. Granted, this site really doesn't heat up until spring migration, but off-season has the advantage of no crowds. Getting out to the Eastern border of Colorado did require an early start, but a full moon made for a well lit drive. I timed it right to arrive just before the sun rose.

I knew that the variety would be somewhat limited by the season, but I had two species that I hoped to see while I was there. Two of my favorite birds from growing up in Minnesota can be found in the extreme eastern portion of Colorado, the Northern Cardinal and Red-bellied Woodpecker. I hoped to find one or the other, and luckily got to see both while I was there. They were great, three Cardinals, one of which was singing, and one Red-bellied Woodpecker. Unfortunately, my shots of those two species were not, so I'll leave it to previous posts for pictures of those two...for now. Instead, Saturday apparently was about flying birds, like the White-crowned Sparrow above. As I was watching the white-crowneds and other sparrows I heard a rustling just in front of me in the patch of scrub. Moving slowly I hoped to get a view of the bird I had a feeling was just feet in front of me, and then.....

She, and a dozen of her friends exploded just in front of me. What I had thought were two, ended up being thirteen Ring-necked Pheasants. I was glad to get one keeper shot, those birds fly fast!

Red-tails were courting everywhere, and this fellow (I believe) was screaming romantically at his lady. It must have worked, because eventually the two went soaring off together.

After I had searched both sides of the lake I headed off, but being within sight of the Kansas boarder I decided to head over for a quick look. I spotted a Northern Harrier, and before I had a chance to turn around a dozen Horned Larks. Just as I recrossed back into Colorado I stopped on the shoulder to get shots of this intermediate Rough-legged Hawk. Not as tolerant of human presence as the light Rough-legged Hawk seen ion Boulder last month, this one was flying off, but still let me get a series of shots before it settled onto a distant power pole.

Yuma County Colorado doesn't get much attention, it lies between Interstates I70 and I76, but my tour between the two was a great day trip. Even in an off season I had a nice 40 species list. If times allow I hope to make it back out later in the spring to see if I can visit a Greater Prairie Chicken lek.

2011 Count: 70
Lifetime: 252

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Wind, but no White-tailed Ptarimgan

Mild temps had me thinking I should head to the high country this weekend. I was in hopes of finding some White-tailed Ptarmigan in their winter wear, and headed back to Lefthand Reservoir to see if I could track some down. I had done a snowshoe trip with the DFO last year where we missed, but knew the habitat was right. The wind was noticeable as I drove up beyond Nederland, and even as I started at the bottom of the trail I knew it was going to be an unlikely day to see any up at the lake. Even so, a mild day showshoeing is a great way to enjoy the outdoors in winter. Just like last year the species count was uninspiring. I had four, two of which - American Crow and Common Raven were seen in the parking area. Mountain Chickadees were around at most stages of the hike, noisy in the trees, but largely invisible. Fortunately a lone Clark's Nutcracker was looking to show off, so I had one subject to photograph. As I had guessed the lake was windy, really windy. I crossed below the dam, which had a moderating influence. I didn't realize the relative shelter until I had reached the south side, and popped up to a level where I was catching the wind coming directly off the continental divide, dropping a few thousand feet and then rushing across a mile of lake ice before hitting me. It is an impressive experience. If I had thought to bring some goggles along I may have tried more of the habitat area to see if I could rack them down, but as it was I had only sunglasses and headed back to the shelter of the trees. I didn't stop while I was in the wind to get pictures of the windblown snow drifts, but they were amazing. As I was looking at their interesting shapes and forms I noticed that some of what I thought was shadowy contrast was really thin layers of rock dust. An in my face reminder that wind is a powerful erosive force, and that on certain days even the massive rocky mountains are broken by its power.
A good afternoon exploring the mountains. I haven't seen any notices yet, but hope that there will be another group trip on 'shoes' this spring.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nostalgia and Anticipation

Another young Red-tail Hawk along South Boulder Creek. My employer's office is being relocated next week. Some of the folks who work here have been in the same location for close to ten years. For me the workplace location change isn't dramatic, I have only been with the company for five years, and a building is just a building. Plus, the new location is a bit closer to home - which is nice. What will be a difference for me are the locations of my midday walks, which provide a lot of the content for this blog. I am looking forward to more frequent visits to a few sites in that area, but will miss all my access to the abundance of open space in Boulder County. My plan had been to hit up one of my favorites each day this week, but weather and work being what they are I have only gotten pictures from Monday so far.

I had to hit up South Boulder Creek Trail, it has been a great place to walk over the past couple of years. Just across from Baseline reservoir, and with open space on either side of the wooded creek - this little stretch is one of my favorites. I wondered if this young Red-tail was the same as the one I had seen a few weeks ago. I doubt that it is, the markings don't seem an exact match, but this bird was my companion for much of the walk. It leapfrogged on my way to the far end of my walk. I was rushing along, because I had glimpsed a potential Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk beyond some trees, and was hoping to get closer to its perch in the distance than I had for the shot I took on a previous visit.

The bird vanished from its perch by the time I arrived near South Boulder Road, but caught a thermal in the leaden, storm-rolling-in sky as I returned to the parking lot.

Where it was later joined by the young hawk I had seen previously, (and even later by another adult to make a total of three hawks circling high into the sky). I know the shots are distant, but the birds emphasize that while colored differently, their shapes are much the same.

I am anticipating a whole bunch of new birding spots to explore, but have another bird topic that is equally exciting...

Today I registered for the 2011 Colorado Field Ornithologists convention. This year the site is Grand Junction, a dramatically different landscape and set of birds than what we have here on the Front Range in Colorado. I submitted my field trip requests and wonder what cool places I will get to explore this year. If you are in Colorado, and a birder of any level consider checking it out. The artwork above is the logo for this year's convention, it was created by R. Christopher Vest, For now though, more cold temps and at least clearing skies. Should be mild for the weekend, which will hopefully present opportunities for some foothills snowshoeing/birding.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ridin' at the Refuge

Saturday's mountain snow reached the plains by the overnight hours Saturday, and I awoke to a fresh dusting of four or so inches. After a quick shovel of the drive I headed off to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. It's been a while, so I am sorry if you have read my posts on this great location in the past. For anyone who has recently found this blog, or is not familiar with the Arsenal I strongly recommend it. This former farming community, turned weapons plant, turned petrochemical factory, turned Superfund site is quickly becoming a unique treasure of the National Wildlife Refuge system. As the Denver area expands it is becoming an increasingly surrounded oasis of prairie in the midst of human habitation. This spring the Refuge will see the grand opening of its new Visitor Center, and as each year passes the area continues to evolve to a more wild state.

I hadn't been out to the refuge since last summer/fall, and the fresh snow made it seem like an appealing destination. My drive in followed only a single set of tire tracks, and a Coyote welcomed me back as he sat near the side of the road. I approached the Visitor Center, and decided to check out the feeder station from my truck. Before I had even gotten started I had Western Meadowlark, Chickadee, Red-winged Blackbird, Northern Flickers, Black-billed Magpies, Song Sparrow, and scores of Dark-eyed Juncos. Of the Juncos, the White-winged is the race that I have found I see the least frequently.

So, I was happy to find one perching for me. Then, it like the others was drawn to the spilled seed on the snow.

I dropped into the Visitor Center to sign in, and found that the weekend tour was set to leave in fifteen minutes, and with the snow it was likely to be a small group. I decided to ride along. It had been just about a year since the last time I had been over to 'raptor row' or the Bison enclosure and I had hopes of seeing the light and dark Ferruginous Hawks again. (For those who have not been, the trailed area that is open to the public in the refuge is relatively small. The focus is on the animals, and they are able to live their lives more naturally with large areas where humans just don't go. Regular tours take visitors on a shuttle buss to see areas that they are not allowed to visit on foot.) While I had a few minutes to wait I wandered around what had been the Officer's Club (now the Visitor Center) to check some of the plantings and fresh tracks in the snow. Not many birds in the trees, so I completed my walk back at the feeders. Feeding there among the crowd was a first-year Harris's Sparrow.

Suh-weet! I have seen a handful of these largish sparrows, but all of them have been re-finds, where I went in with the hopes of locating a bird I knew had been in the area recently. This was the first that I had just picked out of a crowd - pretty cool.

The top of its head and throat will turn black in adult breeding plumage, and will merge with the necklace patch it has right now to form a backwards black hood. Here is a post that shows an adult bird closer to breeding plumage - note that it is a Harris's Sparrow, not a Harris Sparrow, it is possible to learn a few things over a couple of years. From the birds I have seen, Colorado mostly gets first or second year birds that have gotten a bit off course for winter. Typically this species overwinters just to the south-east, becoming more common into the eastern plains of Colorado.

With a great add to my list, to go along with White-crowned Sparrow, American Goldfinch, and Hairy Woodpecker, I was ready for a tour and some hawks! The group grew to seven, a ten year old boy and his dad, a couple of whom the wife had visited the refuge as a Girl Scout. "Back before they cleaned it up!" She explained to the boy, which was why she still "glows at night" Wink-Wink. There were also another pair of photographers to round out our crew. The stars of our trip yesterday were the Bald Eagles. Even a jaded birder like myself who was out for the hawks had to be impressed with the showing. My conservative count for the tour was a dozen, although I am guessing we had more but couldn't count some assuming they were the same ones that had just relocated as we drove. We had a nice mix of adults and juveniles of all ages. Many were perched in the trees, but we had a chance to see one on the snow over a kill, and others in flight.

My highlight was getting to see both the light and dark Ferruginous Hawks on the trip. The dark morph was just seen in passing, and I had no angle to get shots from the camera portholes on the bus. As seen below, the light-morph was much more accommodating. It appears that this light-morph is a recent addition to the area, last year's birds showed dark irides, a characteristic adults have but younger birds do not.

To close, I am guessing that this will be the highlight bird for everyone on the trip who wasn't floored by an eye-level Ferrug or a feeding Harris's Sparrow....

...the just above eye level Bald Eagle. This bird was 10-15 yards from the shuttle bus, and just sat as we stopped and then slowly rolled past. Beautiful, and a great reminder of just how large these birds are. Our tour did get to see a handful of Bison, although they were distant and fairly well hidden in the downslope area of their range. By the time the bus got back I needed to be heading out, but I didn't regret taking the ride. I did notice someone birding from a vehicle at the feeders, and walked over to say hello and ask about the Harris's Sparrow. The man said he hadn't seen one himself that day but that there had been two around, a first and second year. Impressive little feeding station they have going there.

If you are in the area and remotely interested in wildlife do check this location out. The tour ride is a great experience for anyone interested in wildlife or history, regardless of your knowledge level. The ride is really great for kids, but parents be warned that it can run almost two hours. Be aware that the refuge isn't a park. It is a wildlife refuge, and there are a handful of differences for the visitor to be aware of - so check out the site or give them a call during visiting hours.

I can't wait to get back for a hiking day, although at the >95% of the water is frozen, so waterfowl are very limited. On the flip side this normally quiet site is in its off season, so you will have an even more intimate experience during the coming weeks than you will once migration heats up.

2011 Count: 64
Lifetime: 252

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Recovering from Perma-grin!

Birders know that waking up early has its advantages, so do skiers in Colorado. This morning started well before six, and the payoff was a Saturday powder day for me while most of the front range traffic was stuck on the highway! Anyone who has taken face shots off the T-bar at Breckenridge knows that the hours of driving and tired legs are worth it.
As a side bonus I finally have a chance to use the power of the Internet to take us back to last weekend. It was a happy time...Coloradoans hadn't felt double digit negative temps along the Front Range in seasons, and commute times were measured in minutes, not hours. I had celebrated the warm temps and great Cooper's Hawks of my surprising Friday afternoon walk by heading to Arapahoe Basin for a good day of sunny skiing on Saturday. By Sunday I was feeling the itch, and a bit of lactic acid in my legs, so I headed off for a midday walk along the South Platte River in Adams county to work the legs and enjoy the mild temps.

A Long-tailed Duck had been reported in the area earlier in January, and I thought maybe I would get a chance to track it down. Before I came upon many ducks, I had a group of seven small peeps on a rock bar to try to identify. I didn't have an ID in the field, but after looking at the pictures I recognised American Pipits.

No Long-tailed Duck on this trip, but Barrow's Goldeneye are a good consolation prize, (male shown above - left).

One of my real highlight birds was a Northern Shrike. Shrikes aren't uncommon, but this was the most cooperative bird I have had the chance to observe. It was hunting a field from its perch in the trail side tree, and let me walk past below it, shooting all the way.

Of course I also enjoy seeing Northern Pintails, they are just a classy looking bird. There were lots of Pintail on this stretch of the Platte, and I managed to catch this one in flight.

Next up, a species I hadn't found in a few months, Yellow-rumped Warblers. In summer these small birds are like Juncos in winter, absolutely everywhere. However, these days only a hardy (or foolish) few remain. Last Sunday they seemed an omen of more springlike weather, yeah right. At least it was a nice thought while it lasted.

After a great walk I headed for home, and on my way gave a close look at a Great Horned Owl nest near my home. As I drove past I spotted ear tufts! Traffic and my direction only allowed me to get a passing glimpse, but I was consoled a few moments later by this look at a well fed American Kestrel.

Little did I know that in a few short hours the bottom would fall out of the area thermometers, clearing the skies nicely, but making for nasty roads and bringing a good chunk of the regional infrastructure to a standstill. Tuesday evening I was bundled up, and off to watch a basketball game at the University of Colorado. On the way I made a detour to check on the owl nest, and managed a couple of passable shots before cold drove me back to the warmth of my truck.

Great birds, wild weather, and chances to go catch powder days in the Rockies, all wonderful reasons that I love Colorado.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Piling on

At what point does seeing good birds become an embarrassment of riches? After my great Downy Woodpecker start to the morning I headed out in the mild overcast for my lunch, and spotted this juvenile Cooper's Hawk at the end of my walk. That is two for two on Friday afternoons - not a bad streak!

Once again the bird was at the end of my walk, just as I was approaching the parking lot - this time at the Bobolink Trailhead on the South Boulder Creek Trail. I am also seeing a pattern develop. The walk this afternoon was entirely devoid of any small birds. I may have heard a lone Junco, but if I did it wasn't sticking its head out much. I think those quiet bird days in the future are going to find me scanning a lot more carefully for Cooper's Hawks.

It wasn't just the Cooper's Hawk though.

Earlier I had spotted a Red-tailed Hawk across the large field to the east of the trail. Closer examination of the photo revealed what I believe is a Harlan's variety of Red-tail. It's always fun to find those.

So, I am still no further along at getting through a backlog of photos, but in my book that is a good problem to have. Mountains tomorrow, and who knows what before football on Sunday.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Downy Daybreak

When the alarm went off at a quarter of six this morning the weather report said 18 positive degrees were the temp, and that the roads were slick causing traffic delays. That was all it took, I was up in a with a bound and close to the office before seven. I decided to spend the hour before work walking some of the wooded areas along the creek at Coal Creek Golf Course.

I had a good walk of over a mile, with a Red-tail flying between perches ahead of me, and a handful of species that became vocal as the day began. As is sometimes the case though, my most memorable part of the morning came just as I was returning to the parking lot. This Downy Woodpecker was very busy in some of the plantings around the clubhouse. In a well timed meeting of light and subject I had the chance to shoot lots of frames of this bird from very close range.

The proximity allowed some different views of the bird....

I'm not sure what struck me most on this view; the eyelids dropping over the eyes after each blow, the scraps of debris in mid flight, the claws just wrapped around the branch for leverage, or the feathers around the bill that seem to be shaped like a snowplow blade?

I am sure that getting this shot with the Downy's tongue in view was a fun capture.

Just another day where a common bird makes for an uncommon start to the day. I was glad to have been there to appreciate the sight, even more so since the clear skies of the early morning have been replaced by clouds and passing snow showers.

Red-tail Hawk, off to the next perch.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Can't believe its been a week

Well, almost a week anyway. Since the last time I wrote, when the temps had been pushing seventy, Colorado and most of the rest of the nation has taken a turn in the deep freeze. I have some fun experiences and pictures to share from last weekend and the week in a few upcoming posts. In the meantime here are some shots from yesterday, when the temps had returned to near zero. With no wind to take notice of and clear blue skies it was certainly bearable, and almost pleasant to be out in.

I had returned to the offices of the Boulder County Open Space and Mountain Parks, to see if I could relocate the Rough-legged Hawk I had seen last week. The fence lined drive where it had been seen previously had a new sight, the American Kestrel, (above), who was doing a bit of snacking in the cold.

I left, and drove south along Cherryvale Road. Another birder, Bill Schmoker, had gotten some incredible shots over the weekend, and had mentioned that the bird had been hunting along the ditch. I had seen his shots from my phone while at a basketball game at the University of Colorado the night before, and was inspired to try my luck again.

I was glad to get another chance at this cool bird, and hope it remains a bit longer so I can have another chance. These couple of shots were a few of a handful that I salvaged out of several hundred disappointments. As I was looking through yesterday's shots I realised that the dial on my eyepiece adapter had been bumped off a notch, and in the cold air I hadn't noticed that I was shooting everything blurry. Frustrating, but one of the reasons to take lots of shots - and to dial in the focus when manually focusing. These and a couple of others would have normally been the throw-aways, but they left me with a few memories of a bright, cold, beautiful winter day, and the bird that got me out in it!