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

1 comment:

  1. That was a nice day indeed! I loved seeing that sparrow! Beautiful photos!