Updated: May 29
Work brought me to Denver for a few days this spring. I arrived several days early and explored the Front Range over the weekend, squeezing in some birding, hiking, and hanging out. Although it was a warm spring in North Carolina by late April, this time of year in Colorado might be more accurately characterized as late winter. Deciduous trees were barely leafing out, and the mid- and high-elevation mountains still had lots of snow, with overnight temps dipping to freezing. Nonetheless, the weather was great, and I was able to enjoy my roofless Jeep Wrangler rental during the warmer parts of each day.
After flying in, I spent the afternoon birding and mammal-watching (mammaling?) around Denver. On a 2019 trip to Colorado, I added a whopping 48 birds to my life list, leaving me relatively few targets for new birds this trip. For two of the target species, I expected I’d need the magnification of a spotting scope to find or identify them across large reservoirs or fields. So, I set aside some space in my carry-on bag for my scope. I also purchased a monopod that would fit in my carry-on, as my tripod was too big. The monopod turned out to be my downfall. While getting organized early in the afternoon, my spotting scope teetered and fell to the pavement, destroying its internal mechanisms. (This was one week after losing my camera to the Haw River, as detailed in this blog post. So, you won’t see any wildlife photos in this blog.) Fortunately, as detailed below, it turns out I didn’t need the scope (or camera) for the two target birds.
My first stop was Cherry Creek State Park, just south of town. The margins of this man-made reservoir featured an astounding array of waterbirds, similar to those present in coastal NC (rarely found in inland NC). Of 10 species of waterfowl present, a lingering Snow Goose and several handsome drake Cinnamon Teal were the most exciting. I was able to pick out 6 species of shorebirds, including a Whimbrel (rare here), dozens of Marbled Godwits, several American Avocets, and a few Long-billed Dowitchers. The most interesting wading birds were a dozen or so White-faced Ibises. Other waterbirds included Eared Grebes, Western Grebes, and tons of American White Pelicans. Interesting Gulls included California Gulls and Franklin’s Gulls, along with more familiar Bonaparte’s Gulls in handsome breeding plumage (which I don’t often see in NC). Relatively few landbirds were present, but it was interesting to see Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted Northern Flickers interacting with each other. Other animals present at the park included White-tailed Deer and Black-tailed Prairie Dogs.
After Cherry Creek SP, I headed over to Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR. Mammals were the main attraction as I drove a big loop around the prairie. I saw over a hundred Bison (reintroduced several decades ago) and even more prairie dogs. Although I didn’t spend much time or effort birding, I did enjoy seeing grassland specialists like Swainson’s Hawk, Say’s Phoebe, Horned Lark, and Western Meadowlark.
As the afternoon wore on, I headed northeast to the high plains of Weld County, passing through a mix of oil and gas development and cattle farms. First up was a quick stop at some farm ponds that held another 10 species of waterfowl, plus a Black-necked Stilt and a Yellow-headed Blackbird. Second was the small town of Briggsdale, where I slowly searched the fields around town looking for Mountain Plovers that had been seen recently. As I neared the end of my search, I lucked upon one displaying in a barren field about 20 yards from the road. No scope needed for this one! This was my first, and most exciting, lifer of the trip.
With that objective complete, I headed west, back towards the mountains. On the way, I couldn’t help but pull over at another random farm pond, which held a bunch of avocets and another stilt. It seems like every little pond in the Colorado plains attracts high-quality waterfowl or shorebirds.
I eventually made it to Jamestown, a charming little mountain town nestled in a river valley north of Boulder, where I caught up with some friends (Woody and Erin, plus daughter Nola) that generously hosted me for the next couple days.
I woke up before dawn on Saturday. (If you’ve read my other blogs, you’ve probably heard me say that before!) I’m not sure if I was still on Eastern Time, or just a bad habit while on vacation, or maybe it was the Wild Turkey gobbling nearby. Whatever the cause, I enjoyed some nice birds as I stretched my legs on a walk around town. Most exciting were several Cassin’s Finches (lifers) in the trees of my friends’ house, along with other interesting finches like Evening Grosbeaks and a Pine Siskin. I suspect a neighbor’s bird feeder helped attract these birds to the area. Other interesting western species included Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Steller’s Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, and Violet-green Swallows.
Woody and I spent most of the morning hiking the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests, accessible from Woody and Erin’s backyard. (Yes, I’m jealous.) We made a 9-mile loop with about 2000 feet of elevation gain, including a scenic off-trail stop at Walker Mountain. The terrain was a mosaic of dry, scrubby south-facing slopes, extensive Ponderosa Pine forests, other high-elevation conifers, and groves of skeletal, leafless Aspens. Evidence of former mines scattered the area. We encountered some snowy patches in the higher, shadier portions of the trail, with drifts up to a foot deep.
The snow provided an opportunity to study animal tracks. Signs of Elk dominated (both tracks and scat), though one set of enormous tracks almost certainly came from a Moose. We also followed a set of large tracks for several hundred yards that belonged to either a Mountain Lion or a large dog. I’d like to imagine the former, but it was probably the latter.
The birds on the hike were quality-over-quantity. We flushed a Dusky Grouse (lifer), had great looks at a male Wiliamson’s Sapsucker (lifer) drumming on a tree next to the trail, and saw other cool montane species like Clark’s Nutcracker and Townsend’s Solitaire. Pygmy Nuthatches and the gray-headed race of Dark-eyed Juncos were abundant here. Shortly after arriving back in town, I was also treated to a Red-naped Sapsucker (lifer) drumming on a nearby light pole.
We encountered several other interesting flora and fauna on the hike. The most numerous nonavian animals were ticks (probably Rocky Mountain Wood Ticks); I picked up 2 and Woody picked up 4. We also saw a few chipmunks; western chipmunks are notoriously hard to identify, but these were most likely Least Chipmunks. Cool plants included Mountain Ball Cactus, some type of pricklypear, and Prairie Pasqueflower (one of first plants to flower this “spring”).
After the hike and a lunch, I took a solo journey in the topless Jeep along the scenic Peak to Peak Highway. Following quick stops in Ward and Nederland, I stretched my legs at Mud Lake, which was a bit underwhelming. A singing Townsend’s Solitaire was the highlight.
My primary destination was Brainard Lake. With an elevation over 10,000 feet, at least two feet of snow covered everything; higher in drifts. So, instead of hiking to the treeline (as my wife and I did on our summer trip to the area), I explored the woods and a small lake via snowshoes borrowed from my friends. This was my first time snowshoeing, and it was a ton of fun, especially in the fresh snow of the forest. I didn’t see many birds, but I saw a few more unidentified chipmunks and a Red Squirrel. Scientists recently decided that there are actually three mostly identical species of Red Squirrel in North America (not just one), and I’m not sure which one this was. It’s frustrating not being able to identify animals to a specific species, but I suppose that’s a personal problem!
Adventuring done for the day, I crashed early after a nice cookout with my friends.
Sunday morning was cold, and my binoculars (which I’d left outside overnight) were covered in a layer of frost. Luckily, these bins are more durable than my camera and scope! I started the morning with some local birding around Jamestown; I saw a Red-naped Sapsucker, more Cassin’s Finches, an American Dipper, and a Western Tanager, among other species.
After bidding my friends farewell, I headed up the road to the Ceran Saint Vrain Trail, which parallels the South Saint Vrain Creek. Its beauty was matched only by the cold. My teeth were chattering so hard that I turned around after a quarter mile, heading back to the comforts of a heated car.
After a short journey north on the Peak to Peak Highway, I headed east along Colorado state road 7, which follows the South Saint Vrain Canyon into the foothills. The canyon was impressive. I made several stops along the way, carefully scanning the steep rocks. My searching eventually paid off when I spotted two Bighorn Sheep in the distance—a lifer, and the main reason I picked this rocky canyon for my drive.
The canyon eventually dropped me off in Lyons. I started with some birding along Old Saint Vrain Road. The best birds were found on the short roadside cliffs, where I got up-close views at many White-throated Swifts, along with two baby Great Horned Owls nestled in a cliff nest. It was also nice to see a pair of Common Mergansers and many Wild Turkeys, and also nice to hear many Boreal Chorus Frogs calling from the nearby river floodplain.
My final stop of the morning involved a hike up the south part of Hall Ranch. The dry, rocky, scrubby foothill habitat made for an interesting contrast to those I’d explored during earlier phases of the trip. The most numerous mammals were mountain bikers; I saw dozens, maybe a hundred. Although I was unable to locate any Rock Squirrels (the primary reason for this stop), I did see a Mountain Cottontail. The dry habitat also featured some interesting birds, including an American Kestrel, a Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, a few Bushtits, several Rock Wrens, and a dozen Spotted Towhees.
After the Hall Ranch hike, I meandered down into the Boulder and Denver area, eventually returning my rental car and arriving at my hotel.
The rest of the trip was work-focused, with one exception: on Monday night, I squeezed in a birding walk around Lake Ladora at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR. In addition to 8 species of waterfowl, I was treated to excellent looks at two Clark’s Grebes (lifer) mixing with a large group of Western Grebes. Luckily, they were close enough that I didn’t need my scope (this was the second target species that motivated me to bring it in the first place). Other good birds included both Horned and Eared Grebes and a Yellow-headed Blackbird.
That’s pretty much it as far as adventure goes, but I'm happy with how much exploring I was able to squeeze into this work trip. Birding and hiking the Colorado plains, foothills, and mountains in the early spring was a new and memorable experience.
Summary by the Numbers
I traveled approximately 2900 miles by airplane (~300 kg CO2); 365 miles by car (~130 kg CO2); 23 miles on foot; and 1.5 miles on snowshoes.
I saw 97 species of birds, including 6 lifers. 20 birds were new to my Colorado list (which now totals 169 species). Interestingly, I’ve been to Colorado only twice, but I’ve seen more birds in only 3 other states (NC, FL, and SC), and I’ve spent considerably more time in each of those other states.
I saw 8 species of mammals, including 1 lifer. I encountered one amphibian species and no reptiles. Without my camera, I basically didn’t try to identify any bugs other than a couple of butterflies.