The return of fun—and a swampie
Thanks to a moderate-to-strong La Niña event this winter, the mountains have been socked in snow and the eastern half of the state, bone-dry. We had sweated a bit of snow the day before D was going to travel to us, but it didn’t amount to much at all. And the temps were expected to be seasonal, so no problems there. At the last minute, Z had to stay home to meet a plumber for an emergency repair. Big, big bummer.
D and I headed in in his truck and met the new compiler. He gave us our regular area (a relief, since we weren’t sure) and he also assigned F to our team. Hurrah! F drove, since her vehicle could seat 3 easily. Our first species was Mallard—an omen for what became the Christmas Mallard Count in our area (207 total for the day). We started at the bridge over the Arkansas and picked up just a few species there. D walked along the river behind the fish hatchery and F and I headed to Frantz Lake to meet him there. As soon as we hit the parking lot, we realized there were 2 gulls on the ice. Whoa! Gulls are very unusual in this circle—RBGUs had been reported only one other year. We looked through our binos but couldn’t be absolutely positive that they were RBGUs. Something just seemed a bit off. We set up D’s scope but couldn’t get the scope to stay steady on the tripod. We got F’s Nat Geo bird book and tried to figure out what other gull might be likely here in the winter. Nothing really jumped out at us as we scanned the range maps. I started to walk toward where D would come up from the river, to try to hustle him back to the gulls for a positive ID. As I saw him coming along the lake, he hollered “We’ve got a new species for our group!” I replied “I know—gull!” He initially said they were RBGUs. But once he got back to (and fixed) the scope, he became thoughtful. “California Gulls” he announced. The incomplete ring on the upper mandible and the red spot on the lower mandible were the clinchers. (There were other field marks that helped as well, but I don’t do gulls. Period.) We were very excited—a first species for the count is always fun and gets harder to accomplish as the years past. As we were thumping ourselves on the back (figuratively), F commented that she’d never been excited about a gull before. “After all, it’s not like it’s Pueblo.” (The Pueblo CBC is renown for having people finding odd gulls there all the time.) D was able to get a photo through his scope for documentation purposes and we headed triumphantly off to Mt. Ouray SWA.
We groaned as we spotted 5 vehicles in the small parking lot—waterfowl hunters. Ugh. They were going to make it very difficult to find birds of any kind. And indeed, we dipped on VIRA and SWSP, although we heard 3 chattering, fearless MAWRs. I spotted a lone ECDO high in a tree; a few corvids passed overhead. As we headed to one end, D spotted a hunter in full camo gear; we decided we should head back. We walked along the cattails again—no VIRA, no SWSP. Sigh. D spotted hunters at the other end, so we just headed back to the vehicle. Perhaps there’d be fewer hunters later in the day.
We headed for the area around the “Rusty Blackbird” seep. Nothing in the seep. The reality of the snow-less, warm weather was that there was a lot of open water. The normally critical geothermally heated waters were less important in concentrating the desperate species, so we were really going to have to work for species. We checked out a house that had had feeders one year, but no feeders this year. Mr. Blakeslee was out, putting up Pottery Sale signs and we mentioned we were doing the bird count. He invited us to walk his property along the river, saying they had tons of birds. It was a gorgeous piece of property, but no birds this morning. We’ll keep in mind for other years, though.
We decided we’d head toward the cemetery, in order to give it a good amount of time this year. (In the past, we would hit it on the way in to lunch and never really work it in a way it deserved.) We stopped at a few spots—the Hendersons’ pond (a few GWTEs), a new pond that probably was usually frozen (and had 4 GBHEs this year plus a pair of GADWs), Big Bend (nothing), and the steep staircase down to the river. On the way to the last spot, I spotted a BAEA in a tree. D & F went down to the river while I stayed with the car and scanned the fields for HOLAs. (The ground was perfect for HOLAs this year—very stubbly and no snow cover.) I got an AMCR and nothing else. After stopping at some seeps on the way to the cemetery, we started working the cemetery. I went to the back bushes, where we usually find finches—nada. More birds were in the trees—WBNU, RBNU, MOCH, BCCH (I’m finally learning to differentiate those calls!), HAWO, AMRO, HOFI. After an hour or so, we wandered back toward DOW and lunch. At one feeder on the hill over Frantz Lake, we found a slew of AMGOs at their thistle feeders. We found a very active feeder group in our area (Poncha and Grant); we didn’t have time to stop long, but we picked up PIJA (PTSD for all but D) and DOWO there. We made a note to check it out after lunch.
We added L, F’s partner, to our group after lunch. We wanted to head back to Mt. Ouray SWA to see if the hunters had thinned out, but we made some stops along the way. We first stopped high above a wet agricultural field with cattle grazing boredly and we spotted a distant tall, lanky bird strolling through the field. The habitat seemed a tad odd, but we all called it a Great Blue Heron and poured back into the vehicle. We’d already seen 5 Great Blues that day–a good number for our area, but no great shakes. The road we were on took us down the hill and past the field at eye-level. We were probably at about the mid-way point of the field–strategizing about the next stop, wondering where some of the usual species that we hadn’t found yet might be, checking through the tally sheets–when L hollered “Stop!” Brakes screeched. Heads whipped around. That was no Great Blue Heron–that was a lone adult Sandhill Crane! The scramble was on. Out of the car; dodge on-coming traffic; dial the cell phones; find the cameras; slap up the scope. I mostly just stood there transfixed, about 50′ from the oblivious stranger, and marveled at the beauty and incongruity of the sight. Sandhills are usually found in CO on CBCs, but never on a mountain count. Primarily they’re on the far northwestern border of the state and, one year, at a reservoir complex about 100 miles east of Salida. What a present for my 60th birthday!
Back at the SWA, only 1 car in the parking lot. Good. D finally got 2 VIRAs to vocalize by walking up the middle of the cattails (in the direction of the parking lot from the typical VIRA spot, on a bit of land—he didn’t plow through the cattails). Hurrah! Still no SWSP and no WISN, though. We checked out the area across the river from the morning spot; we had seen several WISN there one year. None this year, but we heard a single SWSP chip. Score! After 2 years with no SWSP, we finally got one again—and in a new spot. We drove back along the Hendersons’ pond area; walking along the road beside a stretch of water that paralleled the road, both L and D commented that it seemed perfect for snipe. Almost on cue, one took off back the way we had been walking. Score again and in a new area again. Probably that stretch of water is frozen over in regular years. That WISN put us at 39 species—one off our modal specie count.
The evening was drawing nigh and I marveled that we had gone the entire day without a single CANG. Hoping for #40, we checked out the golf course—surely there would be CANG there. And there were. But D spotted a white goose far away, so we walked well onto the golf course to get in scope range. There, he deteremined there were 3 CACG and an immature ROGO (complete with digiscoped photo). Super! Now at 42 species, it was our 2nd best species day. A good way to end—and a much more fun count this year than last year, that’s for sure!
The only down part of the day was that Z hadn’t been with us. Clearly, it was what had to be done, but I had missed him a lot. Next year.