Colorado. It might be my favorite state to visit. As a youngster, my family would make yearly trips in the summer to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southeastern CO. Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve me gallivanting through the chaparral and open pine woods of the foothills in search of feathered montane specialties.
During the breeding season, this windswept landscape harbors such grassland jewels as Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl, Lark Bunting, McCown's and Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Oh, and let's not forget about the open country raptors! Any given county road in The Pawnee can produce Prairie Falcon, Swainson's Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk and, my favorite, the Golden Eagle. To someone not in tune with the natural world, The Pawnee would look void of life. However, for the naturalist and birder (naturalist birder?), nothing could be farther from the truth. The Pawnee is alive! Praire Dog towns dot the landscape, and are utilized by the Burrowing Owl. You didn't think they actually made their own burrows, did you? Pronghorn Antelope, the fastest land animal in the new world, tear through the land with no regard to man-made boundaries. There are snakes, lizards, foxes, coyotes....you get the point. It's not dead. It's not just pastureland. This place is wild.
Once again, I feel that Westward tug in my gut. My dad and I are making a run out to Colorado for some fly fishing. I've never fly fished, but always thought it looked inexplicably manly, so I welcome some added chest hair. However, this is but the guise. We all really know why I'm going to Colorado......
It's birds, by the way...
Though I'll be fishing in the highlands of Clear Creek County, my eyes are fixed upon the vast expanses of Weld County. For birders, Weld County can mean only one thing: The Pawnee National Grassland. It is here that some of the most sought after prairie species can be found with relative ease. This is a mostly untouched habitat of Colorado for me and many species will be lifers.
This is no small patch of grass, people. The Pawnee (as it will be called from now on) is a prodigious tract of private and federally owned land. The federally managed land alone totals 193,060 acres. I love big skys and endless land, so this my Disney World. I spent a total of twenty minutes in The Pawnee this past Thanksgiving and had just enough time to snag my lifer Ferruginous Hawk. That quick foray into The Pawnee did nothing but whet my appetite for seeing this place in breeding season glory.
|Ferruginous Hawk - Weld Co.|
This isn't the only wild place I'll be vistiting. Though The Pawnee is unchartered territory for me, there other species I'd like to spot; some of them are old friends and some are just a shot in the dark.
I've generated a list of my target species, but first a shameless plug for eBird. I cannot even begin to write to you how great of a tool eBird is. I've spent the past few days combing eBird data to find recent sightings of the birds I'm looking for. The data is accurate and can give me specific locations sometimes not available in the literature! Not only is eBird useful to find up-to-date and historical sightings, but the effort of individuals uploading their sightings to eBird adds to our collective knowledge of the birds we love. Keep your lists, become a better birder, add to science...what's not to love? So, do you eBird?
Westward, Ho! July 1-5 2012
Northern Pygmy Owl (Lifer)
Cinnamon Teal (State/Year)
Though, this beautiful dabbler is not on the top of my list of must-sees, I certainly plan on searching a few lakes and ponds in the Boulder County area for this species.
Eared Grebe (State/Year)
Same as the Cinnamon Teal. I've seen them in New Mexico and Illinois, but never in full breeding plumage. I've always thought they looked quite dapper. I'll be checking Lower Church Lake near Broomfield for them.
Ferruginous Hawk (Year)
I can't get enough of this bird and seeing it briefly last year has left me craving more. This is a Pawnee speciality and could show up anywhere in that area. Of course, I'd love to find a dark morph!
Prairie Falcon (Year)
It's been years since I've seen this bird. I saw one last at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, where I saw one on a nest. Again, this is a Pawnee species that isn't tied down to a specific location. This is an effort bird. I'll be especially looking for land with rock faces or other formations where this species can perch before launching after it's prey like a bat out of hell.
Mountain Plover (Lifer)
A denizen of the sparse grasslands found in The Pawnee. I'll be checking "Murphy's Pasture" along CR 96 for this plover. This species will take some work, that's for sure. I've heard they can associate with prairie dog towns, as well. It's speculation, but I'd imagine that many are already done breeding, which might make them more dispersed? I'm thinking that could make the species even harder to find.
Upland Sandpiper (State/Year)
I haven't seen one in years. School has made it difficult for me to take the time to find this "grass" piper in Illinois. I have a few spots west of Kearny, Nebraska I'll be checking for Uppies. In Colorado, there are long stretches of Highway 138 in Sedgwick County that support them.
Flammulated Owl (Lifer)
A total shot in the dark. I have a few spots like Gregory Canyon in the foothills outside of Boulder to check, but they're most likely already be done calling. I know they prefer mature ponderosa forest and sometimes pure aspen/mixed confier. Anyone know of a nest?
Northern Pygmy Owl (Lifer)
See above statements about the Flamm. Yeah, I have low expectations.
Burrowing Owl (Lifer)
Now here's an owl I stand a chance of seeing! This is a bird I should have seen a while back. However, circumstance and bad luck have let this black sheep of a Strigidae slip through my fingers. I'll be keeping a keen eye out for this species in The Pawnee, where they daily repose in praire dog towns and fence posts.
American Three-toed Woodpecker (Lifer)
This boreal beauty is a species I've long pined after, but have had little chance to search for. I'll be checking Brainard Lake for this Picoides. Someone reported this species on eBird and included some great photos. I can't wait to have my heart skip a beat every time I see/hear a Hairy Woodpecker on this trip!
Chestnut-collared Longspur (Lifer)
Here's the big one. These longspurs are absolutely stunning with a their rufous napes and buttery colored throats. They prefer prefer longer, wetter grass. I have a feeling it'll be hard to come by wet habitat in The Pawnee this year. The McCown's Longspur greatly outnumber their smaller relatives, but they genrally do not associate together and are found in different habitat. The males of both species are distintive, but the drabber females are similar.
McCown's Longspur (Lifer)
Beautiful shades of gray and auburn median wing coverts make this species distinctive as it floats over the shortgrass prairie, singing as it goes. It'll be hard to miss this bird on the back roads of The Pawnee. I'm hoping to get some good photos!
Brewer's Sparrow (Lifer)
Another lifer I should have seen years ago. I'm hoping to pick up this bird in The Pawnee. I'll need to be there early to here this birding singing it's trill song from a lowly perch.
So, there you have it.
For the listers... ABA: 505; Colorado: 100; Year: 247. I have 8 possible lifers, with 4 that I have confidence in finding. I would love to hit 510 for the ABA list and 300 for the year.
Bring it on.