The end of swampies?
The weather forecasts had looked rather dire, with lows the night before expected to be around 0; highs, around 24. We figured we’d have to take the dogs with us—very cramped for the humans, with all their gear and clothing and food. But when I got up at 4:45 a.m., it was 19o—what a shock! We happily found the extension cord for the heated dog bowl, put out the indoor dog beds in the dog houses, and headed off at 6:30. (No snow the evening before, either, so the canyon was not treacherous.) It was even 24o at the Division of Wildlife (DOW) office when we arrived—and no wind! Downright balmy.
We headed off to Frantz Lake to start—not much until the sun started to hit the trees. Z & I found Cassin’s Finches and Pine Siskins (a first for our group, although we’ve had 100s at our feeders in C’dale) in the trees closest to town. A Bald Eagle perched in a cottonwood along the river; we heard a Belted Kingfisher. D & F walked along the river (and got an early 2 Barrow’s Goldeneyes! ) and we picked them up down the road. Surprisingly, D spotted a lone Horned Lark there as well. (Anybody ever seen 1 Horned Lark? I thought they were only allowed out in the winter in massive flocks…)
At Mt. Ouray State Wildlife Area, we dipped on Swamp Sparrow even though D trolled the cattails 3 times. I spotted a Virginia Rail. (It didn’t make a noise—unusual, since voice is how we typically find them.) D found 4 Marsh Wrens; Z & I spotted an American Dipper scurrying down the river. No Red-winged Blackbirds, though. Hunters (human, that is) were in the area (and had shot a duck); an older couple with a dog off-leash traveled about 100′ in front of us the entire way, probably messing up our viewing opportunities. The curse of a Sunday CBC, I guess.
We checked the Rusty Blackbird seep—nothing. The Trumpeter Swan pond—just Mallards and Green-winged Teals. The Northern Shoveler area—nothing. The cemetery was surprisingly good: Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee & Black-capped Chickadee, a number of Townsend’s Solitaires, a Downy Woodpecker (down the hill), and a Brown Creeper! Another first for the team.
We headed in at lunch with 35 species, having dipped on both Wilson’s Snipe and Swamp Sparrow and feeling a bit discouraging.
T had found 2 species of Rosy-Finches at a house with lots of feeder on CR 240C, off US 50 toward Monarch Pass, in a development of new houses. A huge first for the count—we had suspected that they should be in the area, but no one had ever found them. And a lone bonus to development, I guess
We headed out for the afternoon, focusing on open-country raptors and water-ish birds. We went back to Mt. Ouray, but still no Swamp Sparrows to be found. Drat! We went ~2 hours without any new species until D got House Finch (geez!) and we heard Pinyon Jays (another first for the team) at Big Bend. We walked along the road across the river from the Tree Sparrow spot—lots of seeps, cattails, watercress, a spring, and flowing water. D had just said “How can there not be a snipe here?” when I spotted one. Trying not to make any big movements or shriek too loudly, I lifted my forearm slowly: “Right. There. RIGHT!! THERE!!! Snipe! Snipe!” We then saw 5 more in that area, flying hither and yon. Definitely the highest the count has ever had. We also added Northern Shrike and Red-winged Blackbird for us. About 5 minutes before we needed to be back at DOW, D pulled a male Northern Pintail from a flock of several Mallards flying overhead—score! So we added 2 species to the count’s total after lunch (Wilson’s Snipe and Northern Pintail)—not all that great, but better than we’d been thinking we’d do. Plus we added an extra 4 species to our team’s list for the day—House Finch, Northern Shrike, Pinyon Jay, and Red-winged Blackbird.
The Compiler went to a party that evening and picked up 2 new species for the count circle just that easy: Great-horned Owl and Merlin, both of which had been found in town. Now that’s the way to bird—drinking spiced wine and noshing on snacks while folks bring their feeder sightings to you. Yum.
We ended with 41 species—the 2nd highest for us. (Modal # is 40; highest, 44.) When we turned in our checklist, we chatted with the Compiler and the DOW manager about where we’d seen the snipes. They had been in that spot earlier in the day for about 20 minutes, trying to find an American Tree Sparrow that the DOW manager thought he had spotted flying into a tree. Thinking about it later, I realized just what an unusual fellow that manager is. How many DOW folks have even heard of an American Tree Sparrow, let alone could spot something that might actually be one on the wing? The DOW supports this local CBC in so many ways: They let us use their conference room for meetings; they provide coffee, tea, and fruit for the morning kick-off meeting; they buy pizzas and sodas for lunch; the 3 staff members participate as part of their regular job duties. Such instrumental involvement is probably unique in the state of CO and we cherish their participation.
We headed back at 4:25 and it was still light at 5 when we got home. The dogs were fine; it had only gotten down to 16.9o and high was 30o. D is wondering if we’ll ever find Swamp Sparrows in the wetlands again. It’s been getting harder and harder to find them each year. And this year—none. His thought is that birds sort of luck into these micro-habitats and keep coming back. Once those particular birds die, the “culture” of knowing about that spot is gone. We shall see. The DOW manager had predicted that the Great-tailed Grackles wouldn’t return to Sand Lake—and he was wrong. Perhaps whatever lured Swamp Sparrows to that amazing spot earlier will lure new generations of Swamp Sparrows back to this unusual spot. Fingers crossed…
© 2008 Tina Mitchell