The year of the Rusty Blackbird
On a warm (50s) and windy day, D arrived around 3 and we spent a pleasant evening. We got up at 5 a.m. and bustled about getting ready. Although the weather reports had been suggesting that it was going to be cold that morning (below 20, some had said), it was about 25 when we got up. Not much sunshine was expected, but Zfigured that the dogs would be okay for the day (6:30 – 4:30 or so). He put the dog water dish filled with hot water at the end of the kennel, to catch the most sunshine, should it appear. At 6:15, Z let the dogs out off-leash to go to the kennel—bad decision. Coda took off in the dark. I heard him calling her for a few minutes before I realized that she was probably gone. I went out and he said that he could hear her bell at times; he took a flashlight and headed up the driveway while I stayed at the house, whistling. We only had 15 minutes until we needed to leave to get to the CBC on time. Thoughts of back-up plans raced through my head, because we couldn’t just leave her out on her own for 10-11 hours. The best plan (to my mind, anyway) was for D and me to take the Pilot (all of our gear was in there already). Z could stay at the house until she came back and then (somehow) we’d figure out where to meet up; perhaps Z would drive D’s truck in to town. (Obviously, she’s never not come back—but it has taken her as long as an hour of intermittent calling to return, at times.) Miraculously, Z went up the driveway and then the farm road and called her in; I could tell by the change in his voice that she was probably getting closer. I kept whistling and calling and shortly after that, she streaked in. Un-be-lieve-able!! My heart took several minutes to stop racing as I heartily thanked the gods of runnin’ dogs for her relative quick and safe return.
We headed out a bit past 6:30 in the dark, trying to remember the exact location of the Division of Wildlife (DOW) office. We tromped into the conference room and saw a number of new faces. In fact, the Compiler’s and S’s were the only familiar ones. (Note to self. You don’t want to be late—might not get the area you want!) The Compiler asked if we wanted the same section we had last year (Hecla Junction, she mentioned) and we jumped at it. S took the town again, looking for sapsuckers. A couple were going to tromp the Rainbow Trail from Poncha Pass; last year, the count circle had gone further north (to include the landfill in hopes of gulls); but this year, they shifted it south to include some of the Rainbow Trail up Poncha Pass. As talk continued, Z noticed that our section didn’t have the wetlands, which we really wanted. The Compiler helped negotiate a swap with the folks who had that section and we headed out happy. As we left, she hollered, “Get us some swampies.” The Swamp Sparrow pressure was on.
We stopped first at Sand Lake (the DOW sign says “Sand Lake”, but locals call it Sands Lake), which is kept open by water warmed from the fish hatchery just bit upstream on the Arkansas River river—it’s the settling pond for the hatchery. T, L, and M were already “poaching” with scopes. (“Poaching” in CBC lingo is looking for birds in a count circle area that isn’t your own. Since Sand Lake often has really unusual waterfowl, people stop by during the day to make sure we don’t miss any goodies) A non-local person had reported a Eurasian Wigeon there at few days earlier-no go today. Nothing too interesting there, so we headed out for Frantz Lake. The lake itself was pretty quiet—no Swamp Sparrow, as we had had last year, and mostly Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. However, a big flock of Evening Grosbeaks was flitting around the trees by the road and tons of Cassin’s Finches were everywhere there. Looking up a seeping draw, D theorized that someone probably had a feeder along the ridge above. No early Swamp Sparrow to take the pressure off, but the Evening Grosbeaks were a new species for the count.
We then headed to Mt. Ouray State Wildlife Area (SWA). After perhaps 10 minutes, D heard our first Swamp Sparrow—whew! I even got some fleeting looks. He said that Swamp Sparrows look darker in flight than Song Sparrows and are much skulkier than Song Sparrows. So if you’re getting a good long look, it’s probably a Song Sparrow. The swampie call note is more musical, although hard for me identify confidently. The Song Sparrows were making a variety of call notes too, which was a bit confusing. Shortly after that, we heard the pig-grunting of the Virginia Rail—hurrah! We heard it a second time, too, just for good measure (although you don’t really need to hear it twice—it’s so distinctive). The pressure was now really off. We tromped around the SWA for a while but didn’t see much else of note there. (No American Goldfinches in the far trees, like last year; no Northern Flickers either.) We headed back to the car on the far side of the wetlands. D and I crossed the stream first on a sagging plank (it dipped slightly in the water when you stepped on it) to get to that side. D pointed it out to Z and he headed across. Just at the far side of the plank, he slipped and got thoroughly soaked. Probably the plank had been dry when D and I crossed it and had frozen after we left it; Z then slipped on the now-icy surface. It was far too cold and uncomfortable for Z to continue and he had no extra clothes except for 2 spare pairs of boots. (What on earth were we thinking? WE HAVE A TRUCK!!!) So he dropped D and me off at the Arkansas River by the fish hatchery while he headed back to town to buy clothes. We each kept an FRS radio; I would turn it on in ½ hour and he would let us know when he was back. (NOTE: Bring spare clothes and boots in the truck!!)
D and I trekked along the fish hatchery fence on a rather treacherous path—rocky, a tad vertiginous, a bit snowy and icy in several spots. I held onto the fence most of the time; even so, I tripped once, smashing my shin and knee. Along the river, we saw several Belted Kingfishers, a flock of Green-winged Teals (new for the count), and a flock of Barrow’s Goldeneyes. I got excellent looks at the Barrow’s Goldeneyes and now have a much better sense of how they differ from Common Goldeneyes. (Backs, much darker; heads much flatter.) We followed the fence for its entirety, hoping that it would end around Frantz Lake and we wouldn’t have to go back the way we had come. (ugh) Indeed, D’s sense was correct; we had to cross a couple of barbed-wire fences, but we came out in a construction area just a bit beyond Frantz Lake. Z called us after about an hour, just as we were almost to the end of the hatchery and he met us at Frantz Lake—safe, dry, and $118 lighter.
We drove to US 285 to see if we might find the field with Horned Larks from last year. D glassed the field we thought they had been in; but the extra rainfall from this summer had turned it from a bare patch of earth to a shortgrass field and they weren’t there. (Horned Larks have to have snow-free bare ground with very little vegetation; they eat grass seeds there.) We then drove along the river to the Big Bend area (a point where the Arkansas makes an almost right-angle turn from primarily south-flowing to primarily east-flowing.). Not much there. (We did see a Common Merganser on a rock and an American Dipper upstream of Big Bend, both of which D spotted from the moving car. FROM THE MOVING CAR!!! Good grief. What a pair of eyes that guy has.) At CR 166, we stopped in the area where we had found the Red-winged Blackbirds last year; they were there in force this year. (D theorized that probably someone had a feeder at the top of the hill.) D spotted a Wilson’s Snipe unbelievably camouflaged in the grass; even with a scope on it and its eye filling the entire view, you could only discern it when it blinked. (D graciously admitted he had seen it fly in. Prior to that, we thought he was part magician.) When it flew off, we realized there had been at least two there. On the other side of the road, D found a huge flock of Killdeers, much to his surprise. While we were counting the Killdeers, he said, “I’ve got something interesting here” just as I was saying “What’s that odd bird there?” Understatement of the day. It was a female Rusty Blackbird (lifebird for me) working the edges of the stream among the Killdeers. He was extraordinarily excited and we got great views through the scope. Apparently it was a supremely rare find (they’re unusual even on the plains in the summer—why on earth was she in the mountains in December?) We watched until she flew back into some trees and then we headed back to DOW to report in and have lunch. D was strategizing about how he’d break this great find to the group—what would be the most fun, dramatic way to deliver this gem? We said that it was his bird and he could decide how to play it.
The lunchtime check-in is a bit of a game. The group goes through the species checklist—which contains the expected species for the area—one species at a time,. People cheer when an unusual species is found; we make notes of those that we should have found but haven’t yet. It all builds up to the write-in section of the list—the blank lines where you make a note of any species you found that weren’t on the list. After going through the checklist, the Compiler asked “Anything NOT on the list?” One group had seen a Chipping Sparrow; T had Pine Grosbeaks, Cackling Geese, Greater Scaup, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. D’s announcement after that of the Rusty Blackbird took everyone’s breath away (although not noticeably, of course—much too cool a group). The best indication of its importance was that T, the Compiler, and the DOW manager all wanted to follow us back to the spot after lunch, after checking out a local person’s feeder to see if she really had had Purple Finches. (Most likely, they decided, she had had Cassin’s Finches, instead. Those 2 species—especially the female type—are very difficult to tell apart and Cassin’s are MUCH more likely anywhere in CO except perhaps the eastern plains.) On the way there, L found a flock of 54 Bohemian Waxwings—another lifebird for me. We had great looks just from the street into someone’s backyard in town. At the bridge on CR 166, we hung around for about ½ hour, while D and T really worked the place for the Rusty Blackbird. D had felt pretty sure that she was probably somewhere in the area, because there was no other reason for her to be there that morning except that she was in her territory. We spotted a Rough-legged Hawk soaring overhead while we waited, and I pretty much gave up hope. But eventually, D found her high in a tree far away. Scopes gave folks decent, albeit far-off views (nothing like the close-up ones we had had earlier) and T was able to lug his huge camera/lens close enough to get a decent photo for the Colorado records committee documentation. D was triumphant, to say the least—quite a feather to be able to get the chair of the records committee (that would be T) to see it too. Guess that record is likely to be accepted, with those 2 reporters…
We had a couple of hours left, so we headed toward Airport Rd. Along the road there, D spotted a Brewer’s Blackbird on a wire; we counted 3 in all. We also picked up a Sharp-shinned Hawk while we were standing there. At this point, we had 39 species for ourselves; 40 would be a nice round number. We passed the cemetery (which we hadn’t realized was in our territory) and D said we should go check out the spruce groves and ornamental trees for things like Golden-crowned Kinglets. It was late in the afternoon when we got there, but we found a Red-breasted Nuthatch just as we got out of the car—species #40! We vowed that we would get there earlier in the day next year; it had a lot of potential but birds were hunkering down for the night by then.
We headed back to DOW and handed in our list around 4, noting triumphantly that we had added 2 species after lunch (Sharp-shinned Hawk and Brewer’s Blackbird). After chatting a bit with the Compiler and the DOW manager, we headed home around 4:15, with decent light for the trip home. T’s brief report to the COBIRDS listserve that night (noting that the Rusty Blackbird was the top highlight of the count—how cool!) stated a probable 80 species in all, if the rarities were upheld.
The dogs were fine, although the thermometer showed that the high for the day had been only 34.5. Our car had showed 38 at some point, but we had had some glimpses of sunshine in Salida that probably hadn’t occurred in C’dale. The dog water was completely open, with just some pieces of surface ice floating there. Whew!
A super-fun time was had again.
© 2008 Tina Mitchell