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Colorado’s highest country is for the birds

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Wildlife – June 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

You know the old saw about the weather in Leadville and Lake County: It’s ten months of winter supplemented by two months of very late fall.

But don’t tell that to the birds. Despite our less than balmy climate, Lake County is bona fide birding hot spot. Incredibly, more than 150 bird species can be found here. Some are migrants glimpsed fleetingly–and from my viewpoint, triumphantly–over several days or weeks, often as they travel along the Arkansas River, the region’s major flyway. Others set up high country housekeeping solely during breeding and nesting season. And a handful are permanent residents.

My husband Steve and I are what you’d call avid birders. Our binoculars are virtual appendages. Our bookshelves and cars are stocked with a variety of birding books and field identification guides. The grounds around our apartment accommodate a smorgasbord of bird treats–seeds, suet, fruit and, in summer, strategically placed hummingbird feeders.

Our leisure time is spent creeping through brush, crouching behind boulders or standing motionless beside a pond while mosquitoes eat us alive. It’s not uncommon to find us parked in front of a stranger’s house, binoculars glued to our eyes like we’re casing the joint or practicing for the Peeping Tom playoffs.

Why this obsession with birds? To paraphrase the mountain climbers, because they’re there. Birds truly are everywhere around us. It takes no special talent, knowledge or equipment to enjoy them–a pair of binoculars and a good field guide practically guarantee memorable sightings.

Birds also provide a grand opportunity to wax philosophical, another of my favorite pastimes. Apart from the usual “soaring to the heavens” rhapsodies, there’s the bird’s tenacity, its perseverance, its faith in an unseen future.

I’m not the only one who sees in birds a metaphor for the ability to endure, and eventually triumph over, life’s hardships. Take geese during spring migration, says Tim Dillon, an education associate at the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “Geese are committed to returning to their breeding grounds,” Dillon explains. “They’re counting on finding what they need to survive when they get there. They’re counting on winter to end. They’re taking a leap of faith.”

Or ponder the words of Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac: “…a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”

By transcending man’s political and geographical boundaries, birds also unite us.

“Birds connect us as people,” Dillon maintains. “Since certain birds are attached to certain locations, it becomes a big deal when, say, an American robin shows up in England. There’s a shared enthusiasm between the two countries.”

On a less metaphysical level, birds are beautiful–to both the eye and the ear. Like humans, birds can distinguish color. Hence the bright red plumage of a male northern cardinal, the burnished golden head of a male yellow-headed blackbird, the unbelievable sky blue bill of a male ruddy duck in breeding plumage.

And whose heart hasn’t grown a bit lighter upon hearing a robin call cheerily cheer-up cheerio? “Bird song is so much a part of our world, it’s easy to take it for granted,” says Dillon. “But try to imagine what spring or summer would be like without the songs of the birds. The seasons wouldn’t be the same.”

Steve and I actually define the seasons by the birds we see and hear. And after living in Lake County for 14 years, we’ve become fairly adept at predicting spring and fall arrival and departure times for many of our area’s most common species.

These seasonal comings and goings hold special birding charms. Spring is best in terms of varieties and numbers. An hour-long walk along the Arkansas River may result in sightings of some two dozen different species–including several kinds of warblers; cinnamon teal; great blue heron; spotted sandpiper; and glossy, greenish-purple and chestnut- plumed white-faced ibis, with borders of white facial feathers indicating breeding adult birds.

Spring also brings our own special “music of the night”–great horned owls calling to each other and the eerie sound of common snipe “winnowing” during display flights.

Autumn finds both migrants and summer residents heading south again. That’s when we’re most likely to hear the distinctive kar-oo-oo of gray sandhill cranes still more than a mile away from the meadow behind our apartment, where they will rest for the night before continuing their journey.

Winter brings prime viewing of year-round residents like black-billed magpies, golden eagles, Steller’s and gray jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, black-capped and mountain chickadees, horned larks and three subspecies of rosy finches. It’s also the best time to observe perhaps the oddest of high country birds, the American dipper. This chunky, soot-colored bird feeds by plunging into rushing river currents and walking along the river bottoms. In winter, dippers seek out breaks in the ice and splash in and out of the frigid waters.

Although they are technically spring arrivals, summer yields the largest concentrations of green-tailed towhees, brilliantly colored yellow, red and black male western tanagers and their greenish-yellow mates, and hummingbirds.

Regardless of weather conditions, we can count on the first hummer to show up at our feeders around Mother’s Day. It’s usually a broad-tailed, the region’s most abundant hummingbird species. While the broad-taileds dominate in numbers, they’re often displaced in early July by the rufous hummingbird, already beginning its southward migration. A single iridescent, orange-red male rufous will jealously guard a feeder, its tiny head swiveling back and forth like a manic metronome, even when it is not feeding. The calliope hummingbird, the smallest of all North American birds at 3ΒΌ inches in length, also visits occasionally, the male providing an impressive display by suddenly distending purple-red gorget feathers against a white throat.

The hummingbirds head south around Labor Day, but not before Steve and I have induced several to perch on our fingers while feeding.

That cheerful encounter contrasts starkly with the opposite side of birding–the sight of birds experiencing all of nature’s harsh realities. Just two months ago, when an unusual movement outside the window caught my attention, I became a witness to the death throes of a western meadowlark struggling futilely to escape the talons of a sharp-shinned hawk. As I watched, I actually considered dashing outside to try to “save” the doomed lark. Ultimately, I let nature take its course. But the memory of that bird’s final moments is one I won’t quickly forget.

On a lighter note, another glimpse out the same window during a late spring blizzard brought an unusual sighting of a sora, a small, secretive marsh bird that had taken shelter beneath one of our cars. The sora made itself quite at home, remaining overnight and into the next afternoon and entertaining us by perching on the tires, then disappearing into the wheel well before dropping down again to peck at the seed we left for it.

It’s anybody’s guess what we’ll see next. But one thing is certain: There’s always another sighting to look forward to in Lake County, where the temperature’s frosty, but the birding positively sizzles.

When she’s not out watching birds, Lynda La Rocca is generally indoors writing in Leadville.