Monday, September 12, 2011

Fall Counting at Barr Lake State Park (2011 Style)

Highlight life bird of the day - Barn Owl

I'll ask the reader's forgiveness in advance for a long-worded post, but yesterday was a highlight day of birding. For the second time I was a part of the Fall Count at Barr Lake State Park, my previous count in 2009 was blogged here, and here. I am a big fan and proponent of the organized counts that are largely a function of the Audubon Society. Most birders and a good chunk of the general public are aware of the Christmas Bird Counts - and I have had a great time over the past few years joining in as many of those counts as I am able to in that busy season. Fall counts are more limited, but offer another group birding opportunity, with the added bonuses of good weather and the possibility of migrants.
When I stumbled into the fall count at Barr Lake in 2009, I was a year into birding, had a bit of experience, and had the very good fortune to arrive on a day when our largest group of counters was three, and dropped to two in marginal weather. On that day we counted 46 species. This year, with better weather we had a group of seven counters, and our species count ended at 76, (I believe), when added with the species totals from counters in other areas of the park and the bird banding station we were confident that total would climb to over 80 for the day. My personal list reached 65, and included three new species for me.

Cassin's Vireo

Our group on Sunday had a good mix of birding ability, including a couple of great 'ear' birders - who were able to let the rest of us know what we should be looking for before any of us saw the bird. While my ears aren't that well attuned, being quick with a camera can produce results in its own right. While scanning a few trees on my own I spotted the bird above and got four pictures before it was gone. The spectacles gave me a right first guess of vireo, but I was so caught up in warbler ids that I dismissed it and immediately had the group look at the image on my camera for help. A worse picture showed the olive back noted in the first linked post above, and I had my second ever Cassin's Vireo - on my second ever Barr Lake Fall Count. We spent a long while in the area trying to get the rest of the group on the bird, but it was long gone. Fortunately there were lots of other birds in the area and we tallied some good species while we watched.

Common Yellowthroat

This Common Yellowthroat was just one of the many species we saw in that area. We were having good luck in the area below the dam, but we had to head on. Dedicated counts help to keep you moving when birding. You want to avoid recounting the same individuals, and the idea is not to stake out an area in hopes of getting great photos. So before long we were off, hearing a Virginia Rail before reaching the far end of the dam, where we had cars waiting to ferry us back to the far side of the lake. Before we reached our destination, we had one of those non-bird moments of amazement that so often happen while out to see birds. We were passing one of the spillways, and there was some pooling in the creek bed, where recent flows had apparently been cut off and were now receding. In a harsh view of nature we saw many fish that were struggling in the remaining pools. Rainbow and Brown Trout were all stranded, along with a lone Carp. I'll save those images, as they are a bit grim, but beautiful fish nonetheless - and instead share an ugly fellow that was living large in the shallows.

Cayfish - species unknown

The small pool had some fascinating wildlife to observe, the large fish mentioned above, hundreds of minnows, water skimmers and other insects galore, and crayfish. This one and several others could have passed for small lobsters at some restaurants. It was a testament to the diverse natural interests of birders that we stopped for as long as we did, but eventually we were off to find more species. Leaving didn't stop us from wondering what opportunistic predator(s) would find an easy meal before the day was over though.

Semipalmated Plover

We were off to find more birds, and to that end we weren't disappointed. Passing the group of banders who were leaving their station as we approached, we learned that they had recaptured a Magnolia Warbler in their nets that morning. Hoping to somehow relocate the bird, a longshot at best, we headed out across the extended shoreline following the track between nets. While scanning the lake for gulls one sharp-eyed member of our group spotted this Semipalmated Plover with several killdeer on the mudflats. While its markings could possibly be confused with those of a Killdeer, its size is revealing.

Semipalmated Plover and Killdeer

Getting a life bird, and having it pose for size comparison shots is almost too much to hope for. It seemed tiny while foraging with the Killdeer. I lingered, getting shots of the two species and just enjoying the opportunity to get to know a shorebird before hurrying to catch the rest of the group.

Townsend's Warbler

It was good that I didn't fall too far behind. Before long we came across more fall warblers, this time including a Townsend's Warbler, my second life bird of the day. We actually had two individuals on the day, this was the second, and the only one that I was able to get a picture of. Like all warblers it was there, and then gone - vanished beyond the leaves and branches. Pressing on, we completed our last leg, reaching more staged vehicles and returning to the nature center where we could consolidate our totals and make sure nothing was missed. As we approached a picnic table one group member spotted a large bird departing the tree overhead. We all turned, and had different impressions as the large bird glided across a canal. Popular opinion was Great Horned Owl, and others thought maybe it was an immature Black-crowned Night Heron. It turned out we were all wrong.

Barn Owl

The bird first perched with its back to us, and was a bit to far for good looks with bins. My first few frames were inconclusive, it looked like a rusty Great Horned Owl to me. Then I shot a few more frames and zoomed in again on my camera's LCD. When that white face emerged I was floored. Here it was, my number one most sought after bird. I always kept my eye out for them, but after countless detours to check abandoned hay barns, sheds, and hedgerows they had grown into an elusive target. Finally seeing one in broad daylight in the mid-afternoon was so unexpected I am sure I will never forget that sighting. Almost immediately a scope was on the bird, and it remained perched allowing everyone to get up close views. Absolutely an impressive bird and one that I hope will not remain as long unseen for my second sighting.

If returning readers couldn't tell already, I am really a fan of this specific count trip. I have more conflicts with dates in the fall, but always hope to be able to make this one happen. Check with your local birding organization to see if there are spring and fall count locations in your area. You will be glad you did.

2011 Count: 220
Lifetime: 289


  1. Cool~Congrats on your Life Birds! Happy Birding!

  2. I love barn owls - they're so regal looking. And the picture of the crayfish was really neat - if not exactly pretty. ;)