Thursday, December 6, 2012

Field Notes 12.2.12

 A trip down South River Road in Alamosa County started with a sighting of two foxes lounging in the morning sun on top of a haystack. They leaped off the haystack and ran away before we could take what would have been a fantastic photo.

Further on two great horned owls roosted in a bare deciduous tree while a northern harrier cruised low over the fields searching for rodents. We saw our first bald eagle of the winter season at the top of a tree near Conejos CR 26. Other sightings included a loggerhead shrike on a wire and a ground squirrel scurrying through the chico.
We stopped at LaSauses to count birds at our Earth Team wetland. We saw another loggerhead shrike and the usual assortment of winter birds including juncos, northern flickers, ravens and sparrows. We spent a little time observing a large flock of rock doves roosting on a nearby metal barn.

Driving east on Conejos CR Z we saw a porcupine in a tree and an American kestrel.

At the northeast end of Smith Reservoir, our final stop of the day, we saw a large number of ducks take flight in perfect synchronization as we approached in the truck. On the open water we saw mallards, common goldeneyes, and a common merganser. Horned larks lifted from the ground cover and then disappeared into the brush ahead of us. Several mule deer loped along the north shore.


Field Notes 11.25.12

Our last sighting of sandhill cranes in autumn 2011 was November 7. This year we were surprised to see eight cranes still in the Valley as we drove along Rio Grande CR 3E just south of Home Lake.

At the lake, which was mostly frozen, there were Canada geese, a gull, American coots and a bufflehead. We then went up the road to the south entrance of Rio Grande State Wildlife Area and ambled towards the river. During the hike we saw a northern harrier with reddish undersides, indicating that it was a juvenile. Flying nearby was light gray adult harrier. In the trees along the river chipping sparrows, Brewer’s sparrows and juncos flitted among the willow shrubs. A red-tailed hawk flew overhead and a common merganser swam peacefully in the river.  A stop at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge auto loop yielded sightings of mallards and an American kestrel.

Field Notes 11.18.12

Based on a report of a greater roadrunner sighting, we drove to Great Sands Dunes National Park. After checking in at the visitor center, we hiked a trail that wound from the visitor center to the dunes. While scanning the chico, we saw a coyote lazing in the sun. We looked up to make certain no Acme Safes would drop on us. Beep, Beep. 

We didn’t see the roadrunner but it was a beautiful day and a nice hike.


Field Notes 11.16.12

 The San Luis Valley is really a large place and we have ranged over a better part of it during our one-year odyssey to see as many birds as we can in the Valley.  So far we have seen over 180 birds.  On this field trip we went to the western alluvial plain below the Crestone Needles. Following the trail guide in the Rawinski we headed up Hwy.17 to the Black Canyon.

As we drove north we saw sandhill cranes loafing in a field east of the highway. We also saw a red-tailed hawk diving at unseen prey and pronghorns racing across the chico.  As we turned east across Saguache County Road G we saw a golden eagle flying on a thermal and a peregrine falcon sitting on a pole. We drove north on a rugged dirt track to the Black Canyon trailhead. Many horned larks darted across the road and disappeared in the brush. Ravens cawed across the sky and magpies dropped in and out of trees.  The trail continues to Orient Mine, where during summer evenings large numbers of Mexican free-tailed bats leave the mine in a spectacular scene that thrills spectators.

We drove over rugged tracks and dirt roads until we found ourselves heading back down Hwy. 17.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Field Notes 11.4.12


Illness had kept me inside for a couple of weeks but I was feeling better and my good “doctor”--Diane-- needed sun and fresh air, those inoculants against cabin fever.  We headed west along Alamosa CR 8, with a Diane-inspired turnaround to see a young prairie falcon looking forlorn and motherless on a wooden fence post. We stopped at the CR 8 woodlot to eat our sandwiches. We viewed the fields and sky. Numerous sandhill cranes crisscrossed overhead, their distinctive calls magnified by the crisp autumn air.

On the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge auto loop we identified a bufflehead, American coots, mallards and northern shovelers.  We saw a hawk – probably a young red-tailed – on the wing. On the west side of Colo. 15 we watched a herd of pronghorns loping through the chico and several prairie falcons atop power poles.

At Home Lake

The lake was crowded with American coots, Canada geese and several buffleheads. Swimming among the Canada geese were four greater white-fronted geese.  These unusual geese, with their pink bills and white face patches, were distinctly different from the Canada geese. This is one of the interesting aspects of bird watching--the randomness.  Earlier while we were at the MVNWR we had talked about just heading home, but decided instead to continue on undaunted and stop at Home Lake. If we had continued home daunted we would have missed the rare sighting of the greater white-fronted geese.

Field Notes 10.11.12

We found ourselves in that nether time before the fall migration, before the big flocks had started moving around. We found ourselves at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. The flat but varied terrain along the Rio Grande is a great place for this kind of birdwatching.  During the two-mile hike you pass stands of willows and wetlands. There are abundant spots for shorebirds on the banks of the low-running Rio Grande. You hike through large open areas where the big sky reveals several species of raptors.

In this nether time when birds moving around the Valley are few and far between it is still possible to see some good birds. At the Refuge today Diane and I saw an osprey scouting for fish in the river. Near a field in the dry grasses we saw a vesper sparrow, sitting so still we could see its chestnut wing patches and white eye rings.

We glimpsed some ducks, hard to identify in the late afternoon sun. They flew up and down the river, some taking to the Chicago Ditch.

A family of sandhill cranes flew overhead--Mother, Father and Child.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Field Notes 9.30.12

Alamosa is famous for its clear sunny days and this morning was the best of the best. We hiked through Alamosa Ranch west of the golf course and were delighted to see a large variety of birds, all quite active on this colorful autumn morning. Here’s our list: white-crowned sparrows, black-billed magpies, barn swallow, American robins, mountain chickadees, Wilson’s warbler, two great blue herons, mountain bluebirds, yellow-rumped warblers, Canada geese, western grebe and ducks too far out on the ponds to identify. After our hike, we hit some golf balls at the driving range and heard sandhill cranes calling to each other as they flew so high in the blue sky that we couldn’t even see them.

Fields Notes 9.29.12

A lovely day in Costilla County. Our first sighting of the day was along County Road Z where a Swainson’s hawk perched on a fence post. That in itself wasn’t remarkable but as we drove closer to the raptor it was fascinating to watch it gulping down a snake for breakfast.

We stopped at our Earth Team wetland property in LaSauses. The pen and pasture were full of cows and calves so we counted birds from the road. We saw eight sandhill cranes poking around the wet meadow about 200 yards east of the road. We also saw Canada geese in flight and a yellow-rumped warbler in one of the trees. Far to the east we saw one of the wild horses that roam the BLM lands in the rugged San Luis Hills.

We drove south from LaSauses and stopped to check out a large wetland east of the LaSauses cemetery. About 10 white pelicans cruised overhead and came in for a landing. We also saw some ducks in the distance as well as two duck hunters, this being the first weekend of waterfowl hunting season.

We drove west on Costilla County Roads U and V through the San Luis Hills to the little town of Sanford. We found a tidy little park in town where we ate our lunch. From Sanford we drove east on County Road Y. In a field northwest of the entrance to Pike’s Stockade we saw a large congregation of about 200 sandhill cranes. We stopped for a while to observe the family units of parents and juvenile cranes.

We were surprised the gate to Pike’s Stockade was open (it’s usually locked after Labor Day) so we drove in and walked the lovely trails. The huge trees didn’t hold many birds but the fall colors were absolutely gorgeous. The Conejos River has plenty of water at Pikes Stockade but is nearly dry near LaSauses. Along the trail we saw dark-eyed juncos and white-crowned sparrows. We heard ravens and chickadees.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Field Notes 9.15.12

It was not long after we left home that we realized we had both forgotten our cell phones. Oh well.

We continued on undaunted to Zapata Falls.  We had heard rumors of an American dipper on the stream, but we did not see the dipper. We think this is one bird that will go on our--Wanted To See, Tried To See, Should Have Seen (along with the yellow-billed cuckoo)--bird count list.  Up above the falls on the South Zapata Lake Trail we did see a Townsend’s solitaire, Clark’s nutcracker, northern flicker, black-capped chickadee and a possible Townsend’s warbler.

Returning to Zapata Falls, we still did not see the dipper but we did meet a sweet three-legged dog.

Following a theme, we headed next to Zapata Ranch. We saw an American kestrel on a signpost beside the road. At the ranch we walked the birding trail and saw black-billed magpies, white-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees.  Several common nighthawks flew overhead. We saw one nighthawk sitting on a branch - the first time we had ever seen a nighthawk perching. We noted that the nighthawks were in flight during mid-day. Previously we have only seen nighthawks flying in the morning or early evening.  We also saw a handsome Abert’s squirrel, the first one we have seen in the San Luis Valley.

From the ranch we headed to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.  We stopped at the picnic area and ate lunch with a chipmunk. We drove up to the campground and only saw a few American robins flying through the pinon pines.  We hiked up the Medano Pass Trail and heard a Clark’s nutcracker, a jay and caught a glimpse of a few unidentified streaky sparrows.  Maybe it’s just us but we are not yet seeing many of the fall migration birds coming into the Valley. But there is nothing to feel down about.  Today was a beautiful fall day in the San Luis Valley.  We had the opportunity to walk in the forest with the aspen turning to gold, set off against the blue sky and the 14,000-foot Mount Blanca. My god, but sometimes we feel so happy.  Inexpressibly happy!!

We headed home with smiles on our faces. When we walked in the door we could not believe that it was after 5:00 p.m.  We had left the house at 8 a.m. It had been a long day for us but without the cell phones it had gone by as just a day of splendor and satisfaction.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Field Notes 9.9.12

Another fin and feather field trip.  We headed up to Big Meadow Reservoir near South Fork.  The fishing for me was terrible. I still think Diane is sending out vibes to keep me from catching fish because she doesn’t like to see them get hurt.

After about three hours of fishing I packed it up and we hiked around the reservoir for some bird watching -- which was not much better than the fishing.  We did see a red-tailed hawk overhead, its tail feathers glowed bright red as it soared under the afternoon sun. Near the inlet we found several Canada geese, mallards and two common mergansers.  A small pine tree next to a small aspen held dark-eyed juncos, mountain chickadees and a sparrow flitting too fast to identify.  A deer ran across the trail after getting a drink from the reservoir.

We drove west toward the Valley floor and saw the gray backs of several Swainson’s hawks on power poles. Although the sun was dropping in the western sky, we wanted to use every bit of the beautiful day to see birds so we stopped at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.  The waters along the auto loop were filled with American coots, ducks and geese although the low autumn sun made it hard to see what all was on the water.

We then moved on to the treed pull-out on CR 8.  This spot is always fun, filled with birds darting in and out of the willows, Russian olives and cottonwood trees. We thought we might have seen a female blue grosbeak. It had a thick bill and the metallic chink call of the blue grosbeak but it also had a dark crest which is not a field mark in the Sibley’s bird guide.  We also saw a green-tailed towhee, Wilson’s warblers, a western wood peewee, American robins, European starlings and a white-crowned sparrow.

Diane suggested that we head up CR 3 on the way home. This part of the drive was filled with red-winged and Brewer’s blackbirds flying across the road, so much so that I was afraid I was going to hit them or they me. Better to drive slowly and enjoy the trip.

As we neared U.S. Hwy. 160 Diane saw big birds in a crop circle.  She asked if they were geese or cranes. They turned out to be sandhill cranes -- about 200 of them from the irrigation ditch to the center pivot. Just spectacular!! Our first crane sighting last year was on September 18. We heard it calling as it flew above us while we were walking in Carroll Woods in north Alamosa.

We still weren’t ready to quit birdwatching for the day so we stopped at Home Lake east of Monte Vista.  It was Coot City there, along with a few western grebes, a lone double-crested cormorant and a white domestic duck with her white and brown offspring.

Reluctantly we decided to return home with a reminder that autumn had definitely arrived – the Denver Broncos would begin playing their first game of the season in less than 10 minutes.

We Love the Valley!!!

Go Denver Broncos!!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Field Notes 9.4.12

Sometimes birdwatching is a very busy affair with birds everywhere. Other times it seems towards the end of summer things slow down and there are fewer birds to see. But that’s not to say there aren’t unexpected and delightful sightings such as the group of cedar waxwings we saw in a Russian olive tree just west of the Adams State University campus near the Rio Grande River.

We’ve also been busy with family events and end-of-summer activities so here is a list of sightings that have brightened the doldrums of late summer birding:

American goldfinches and plumbeous vireo at Pike’s Stockade
A Wilson’s snipe and great blue herons near Lasauses
American avocets, white-faced ibises, black-crowned night herons, Wilson’s phalaropes and gulls at Blanca Wetlands
Common nighthawks and killdeer at Riverwood Pond in Alamosa

Around town we’ve noticed that the numerous swallows that have delighted us with their aerial acrobatics all summer have left the area. The rufous hummingbirds that so jealously guarded the feeders are gone but we still have broad-tailed hummingbirds enjoying the sweet nectar. Canada geese are getting restless and practicing their v-shaped flying formations.

We will soon look forward to hearing the haunting calls of the sandhill cranes that signal the beginning of the fall migration.

Fields Notes 8.12.12

On our last good field trip we headed south on Rio Grande County Road 3 towards the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. About halfway down we stopped to observe a juvenile Swainson’s hawk in the middle of the road. Being concerned about its safety Brian got out of the truck to try to shoo it off the road. He thought better of this when he heard its mother screeching from a nearby power pole. Diane envisioned the mother hawk swooping down and digging its talons into Brian’s back. We did manage to move the funny young hawk closer to the side of the road where it would be out of danger.

We moved across to the wooded pull-out at the south end of the refuge off County Road 8. This has always been a hot birding spot for us. We were pleased to spot a green-tailed towhee poking around in the leaves on the forest floor. We also saw some lark sparrows and juvenile red-winged blackbirds with their much darker parents.

Our ultimate destination this trip was the Rock Creek area west of the Monte Vista refuge. As we climbed in elevation we saw numerous small birds flitting along the roadside which we believed to be horned larks. Some little birds darted quickly into the brown-colored brush and camouflaged themselves before we could I.D. them.

Soon we were in the foothills and mountain zones. We saw pine siskins in the evergreens and as we maneuvered a curve in the road we were surprised to see a blue (dusky) grouse standing on the gravel road. It flew into a tree and joined another grouse.

After a hike in the rain we explored a willow-covered creek where we saw several Wilson’s warblers, American goldfinches and dark-eyed juncos.

As we drove out of the Rock Creek area, we decided that even if we hadn’t seen any birds we still would have enjoyed the spectacular views as we cleared the canyon and looked out over the Valley. It was a wonderful trip. We saw a northern shrike and several American kestrels hovering over their hunting grounds once we reached the Valley floor.

Before going home we drove the auto loop at the Monte Vista refuge where we saw a lone coyote stalking waterbirds. We didn’t wait around to see if it had any hunting success.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Field Notes 8.3.12

Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area is THE Place for Waterfowl !

Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area was closed from February through July 15 for waterfowl nesting. We decided to check out the area today and were pleased to see that there is plenty of water there and an abundance of waterfowl and shorebirds. We entered the area via the north entrance and parked at the first parking lot. The first lake, which is deeper than the others, had a number of ducks, grebes and coots swimming at the far western edge.
As we approached the next lake on the trail we were treated to a group of white pelicans flying overhead. These birds are extremely quiet and as they circled in the thermals we could hear only the whirring of their wings. The shores of the southwest lake were lined with at least 15 great blue herons, several black-crowned night herons and a spotted sandpiper. Floating on lake were numerous eared grebes tending to their squeaky babies, pied-billed and western grebes, American coots and several species of ducks in addition to rafts of white pelicans.  Two Forster’s terns flew overhead as did a Swainson’s hawk, a turkey vulture and a common raven.
The southeast lake was literally filled with dozens of white-faced ibises, American avocets, Wilson’s phalaropes, great blue herons and white pelicans. Along the shore we identified a juvenile Bonaparte’s gull, a long-billed dowitcher and greater and lesser yellowlegs.
As if all that weren’t enough, we stopped at Johnson Lake at the western edge of the state wildlife area and saw at least a dozen snowy egrets, white-faced ibises and American avocets. The highlight of our Johnson Lake sightings was a single black-necked stilt – a bird that we have been hoping to see for quite some time.

Field Notes 8.1.12

Colorado Day

We paid our entrance fee at San Luis Lakes State Park and drove past the great brown expanse of the dry lake bed. Last year at this time San Luis Lake was full of water, but this spring and summer moisture has been hard to come by.  A few travel trailers inhabited the camp sites, nestled among the dry chico.  At the State Wildlife Area north of the big lake, we parked and walked north through a swarm of lunettes. We saw a mourning dove in a dry low area that last year held some water.  A horned lark landed nearby.
We walked onto a dry pond where two great-horned owls flew off to the southeast. Diane wandered around the dry wetlands looking for artifacts—finding only the detritus of a more modern people: shards of sanded glass and weathered red brick.  I found a pool of blood red water below the weir.   Diane saw another owl flying to the northwest. We found a ghost cabin—probably a hunter’s cabin—testifying to wetter times when sturdy pioneers could live on the marshlands.  Oh my! What about bugs? I would believe that they hunted for waterfowl after the cold nights had put the mosquitoes into a winter sleep.
The dry wetlands are beautiful because green grasses cover the low areas, indicating that some water is still here. The darker green cattails surround these negative islands, then the gray sand of the bush.  We crossed the sand looking for pieces of past people -  their points, their pots, their places.
At the north end of San Luis Lake the water has been replaced by waving blades of prairie grass. Diane sat in the grass.  She looked like the Wyeth painting of Helga lying in a grassy seaside field.   Diane pointed to a common nighthawk high overhead. A few little brown birds flitted among the branches of an old cottonwood.
In the green waves we share tortilla wraps and Chianti out of a plastic glass.  How romantic!
On our way back we stopped and visited with a couple from the north. We commiserated with each other about the dry land and the nationwide drought. We cheered each other with the fact that everyone is saying El Niño will return to the Pacific Ocean and bring water to this land. 

Field Notes 7.29.12

South Zapata Lake Trail

These field notes have been lost.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Field Notes 7.20.12

 We went afield today as Earth Team volunteers to explore our Wetland Reserve Property near Lasauses.  This is a conservation project of the NRCS where we and others do regular bird counts on wetlands across the Valley.

When we are in the truck Diane is the look out and tells me to stop when sees something. I guess I’m not fast enough because she says, “Stop! Stop! Stop!”  I would like to stop as fast as she wants but I would put her through the windshield. One bird that I did not stop fast enough to see was a light brown sparrow-like thing that flew into the chico. However, I did stop in sufficient time for us to see white-faced ibises and killdeer in a flooded field and a Swainson’s hawk and a red-tailed hawk on power poles and tree swallows on the lines in between.
At our bird count area we were ready for the wet, wet, wet, pasture.  Diane was in irrigation boots and I was in shorts and sandals—both of us doused in bug spray.  The pasture has a dry high area with trees where we sighted barn swallows, house sparrows, mourning doves, American robins, western wood peewees and starlings. The lower pasture is wet and divided by a cattail fen.  It is a sloppy, slick, shaky bog. It is hard to walk through but we slogged down to the cattails to see a common yellowthroat, red-winged blackbirds and a marsh wren. We heard a sora in the reeds.  I startled a Wilson’s snipe and as it flushed up from its hiding place it startled me, too!  We saw a white-throated swift swooping overhead.

We crossed the wetland to dry chico where Diane found a long sturdy stick which greatly improved her chances of not falling in the muddy marsh as we crossed back again. How I did not fall myself was only luck. We were extremely lucky to see the sora, which we had heard in the marsh, fly up out of the cattails.
As we left the  village we saw a southwest willow flycatcher,
Our birding day was not yet done so we stopped by Pike’s Stockade hoping yet again to see a yellow-billed cuckoo.  I saw one flying across a field but Diane said, “No, that’s a magpie.”  She was right.  Then I was sure, “There, in that tree.”  “No, it’s a magpie!!”  “There, in the willows.” “Magpie.”  We were not going to see a cuckoo today.  We did see a sage thrasher as we left the grounds.

As we headed home we stopped to observe an American pipit on a barb wire fence. As we drove through the area where we had seen the light brown bird on the drive down we saw it again.  The bird stayed ahead of the truck but with careful starting and stopping under Diane’s direction we identified it as a lark sparrow, a beautiful little bird.
I love bird watching and I love that Diane is there to tell me how to drive and not get too extravagant with my sightings.

Field Notes 7.19.12

We understand your pain, William Clark.

An evening trip to the Rio Grande State Wildlife Area started at the northwest entrance. We doused ourselves with bug spray and started out.  At the river’s edge we saw a new bird for us and our best sighting of our year-long birding odyssey – a black phoebe.  It was just a perfect sighting - the black-headed bird with a black chest and white belly flew back and forth from its perch on a bare branch, snatching insects from over the water. We had plenty of time to make a good identification. This was only the second or third time a black phoebe has been seen and reported in the San Luis Valley.
We also saw two orange-crowned warblers flitting in the riverside willows.

We started down the trail, excited to see even more winged creatures but as we pushed further into the dense deciduous forest we encountered a fearsome flying thing - the mosquito. We tried to continue on undaunted but at the point that I started breathing them in through my nose I called for a return to the truck. We were reminded of the great explorer William Clark who complained often about the troublesome “musquetoes” as he and Meriwether Lewis led their expedition across the heartland.
We drove down to the southwest entrance of the SWA and found this area to be much better bug-wise. The area was more open and relatively mosquito free. We saw a beautiful American goldfinch male and female land on a post not ten yards from us.  Further on at a cattail pond we saw two great blue herons, American coots and mallard ducks. A northern flicker flew up into a nearby tree and we flushed several squawking black-crowned night herons. We also saw a house wren, a marsh wren, a western wood peewee, two northern harriers, a Swainson’s hawk and a prairie falcon. We heard a sora in the dense reeds but did not see it.

We decided that we’ll get some extra strong DEET and mosquito net hoods the next time we return to the thick riverside forest at the northwest entrance.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Field Nites 7.16.12

 Opening Day at Blanca Wetlands

There was not much doing at the wetlands but we had gone to see a snowy plover and our efforts were rewarded.
We saw what we presumed to be two snowy plovers feeding along the shore of the alkali playa north of parking area 4.  We were able to get a good look but decided to wait on a positive I.D. until we could check field marks against our Sibley’s field guide, which we had left in the truck. We also wanted to take some photos.
We moved on to parking area 6 and walked out to the playa to the west. It was filled with white-faced ibises, Franklin’s gulls, American avocets, killdeer, red-winged blackbirds and a mallard mother and ducklings. At the south fishing pond we saw a Swanson’s hawk.
Back at the truck and with field guide in hand we returned to the playa to again observe the shore birds. This time we saw the dark stripe on the plovers’ shoulders and we were certain of the sighting.
On our way home we saw a great horned owl as we headed across Alamosa CR 2.

Field Notes 7.15.12

 On this day we split our bird watching trips so we could observe morning and evening bird activity.

In the morning we hiked through the wooded area north of the Alamosa disc golf course. We were pleased to see that the previously dry marshy areas were filled with water – and birds!! We saw a large number of white-faced ibises and black-crowned night herons. We also heard one or two soras calling from the reeds.

The deciduous forest yielded sightings of broad-tailed hummingbirds, western wood peewees and yellow warblers.
After 6 p.m. we drove over to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. What a wonderful treat to see so many newly hatched babies with their parents. The wetlands were full of baby yellow-headed blackbirds, American coots, eared grebes, ruddy ducks, Canada geese and mallards. They are so cute as they call to their parents and furiously paddle through the water. The pond at the south end of the auto loop is once again full of water and there we saw American avocets, black-faced ibises, black-crowned night herons and Wilson’s phalaropes. In the trees that line Colo. 15 we saw a great-horned owl, a Bullock’s oriole and a prairie falcon.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Field Notes 7.7.12

Earth Team Deployed.

After starting our SLV Birdwatching Odyssey we have come in contact with others with this shared interest.  One acquaintance asked us to become members of the Natural Resources Conservation Service Earth Team. The Earth Team is a project that recruits volunteer birdwatchers to do regular bird counts on agricultural land managed under the NRCS wetland reserve program. We have been assigned 140 acres of pasture  and wetlands near the village of Lasauses.
Under clouds and rain we headed down to the area with our niece Christa. We had a little trouble finding  the pasture but some locals recognized  three lost souls, seeing us in a field with a map and  pointing in three different directions. They directed us to some stock pens back up the road.
The field is filled with grass and cattail sloughs. Trees line the road and fences. The  San Luis Hills rise to the west above oxbows of the Rio Grande.
The field  and open water had a nice compliment of red-winged blackbirds. Tree swallows flew overhead or sat in trees with their fledglings.  We also saw violet-green swallows.  An  American goldfinch flew up into the trees and a Wilson’s snipe winnowed above us. Eurasian collared doves crossed the rainy  sky.
It is such a beautiful place and we are thrilled to be part of  this environmental study.
On the way back home we stopped at Pike’s Stockade hoping to see the yellow-billed cuckoo but it remained elusive.  We were elated, however, to see a blue grosbeak and a Lazuli bunting.
Also, you may remember that the last time we were birdwatching near Pike’s Stockade  we found a lost calf and returned it to some nearby cattle.  We were pleased as we drove by the same pasture when one little calf broke from its mother, ran to the fence and looked at our truck.  We know that this is the calf we saved or at least we want to think it so.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Field Notes 7.1.12

 Sparrows Galore 

Our field trip today took us into the beautiful Conejos River Canyon southwest of Antonito and up over La Manga Pass at over 10,000 feet. We turned off at Forest Service Road 114 to La Manga Creek Trail. Our first two sightings were sparrows – a white-crowned sparrow and a Savannah sparrow. A bit further down the trail we spotted a new bird for us – a warbling vireo. We continued along the trail for about 1 ½ miles, enjoying the scenery and numerous bird sightings including red-winged blackbirds, American robins, northern flickers, a hairy woodpecker, male and female western tanager, Clark’s nutcrackers and some high-flying swallows. We also caught a glimpse of a duck family, mother and fuzzy babies, on a beaver pond. Overhead we spotted turkey vultures and common ravens. 

We returned to Hwy. 17 and continued west to Trujillo Meadows Reservoir State Wildlife Area. After a picnic at the lake we hiked along the shore trail. While examining a Lincoln’s sparrow we startled a baby spotted sandpiper. It squawked and squawked and ran up and down the bank. Finally its mother returned and calmed down the poor frightened baby.   

Pretty white-crowned sparrows were abundant during this mountain terrain field trip.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Field Notes 6.23.12

 After a breakfast burrito in Monte Vista we headed north on Hwy. 285 to Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area. Upon our arrival we were teased by a small yellow bird with olive wings but its flitting and darting in the green leaves of the narrow leaf cottonwood trees that ring the parking area made a positive identification difficult.  After several minutes of chasing the warbler with our binoculars we moved on to Johnson Lake.

Near the beginning of the trail we saw a large brown bird, and then another, fly into the reeds. Its neck was pulled up against its shoulders like a heron in flight but because of the brown color we decided it was an American bittern. At the lake we saw two snowy egrets and a black-crowned night heron. The water held a ruddy duck (Diane’s favorite duck), American coots, gadwalls and mallards – all with their newly hatched babies. Two American avocets searched for food along the shallow shoreline.
Back at the parking we searched again for the little warbler and Diane got a good look at the dark cap of its head. She recognized it as a Wilson’s warbler and I concurred. A western wood peewee landed on a bare branch and let me have a good view of it.
We then headed up to Bonanza, a former mining district, northwest of Saguache. By then the weather was hot, dry and windy. We ate our picnic lunch but saw few birds so we headed back home down Hwy. 17. We saw some hawks and swallows along the way. When we started our birdwatching odyssey we knew that part of the adventure would be exploring the Valley as well as seeing birds. 

Field Notes 6.22.12 Volunteering

 We love birdwatching and being out in nature, whether on a high mountain pass or under a tree in our backyard.  We also want to do all we can to protect birds and the natural world. One way we have chosen to help is by volunteering with the Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges.  At the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, Diane and I work as docents at the visitor center. This is just a great thing to do. Not only do we get to introduce people to the refuge, we get to talk with birders from around the country and the world. We also get plenty of time to look at the vast amounts of birds that use the refuge.

On this particular early morning we saw a Wilson’s snipe up high on a power pole as we arrived at the refuge. This was an unusual place to see a snipe as they are usually near the ground. Throughout the morning we saw white-faced ibises and red-winged blackbirds. A colony of cliff swallows make the visitor center patio their home and it is just thrilling to watch them flying in and out of their mud-dobbed nests. We saw robins eating yellow berries from a bush, an eastern kingbird on a post and hawks flying in the distance.
A couple from New Mexico came into the visitor center and said they had seen a black tern when they had visited the refuge two weeks ago and were hoping to see it again on the trip back home. After our shift at the visitor center we drove the auto loop and we also saw the black tern swooping over the marshes as well as coots, mallards and cinnamon teals -- all with fussy little babies nearby. We also saw yellow-headed blackbirds and meadowlarks.  We heard the gurgling calls of an American bittern and the winnowing of a Wilson’s snipe.
Please come and see us at the national wildlife refuges here in the San Luis Valley. We have great birding year around and there are surprises everywhere.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Field Notes 6.17.12

The day broke clear and sunny over the San Luis Valley and I slept in because it was Father’s Day. We got rolling about 10 a.m. and headed up to Big Meadow Reservoir west of South Fork for a fin and feather day-- fishing and birdwatching.  And as usual on these combined field trips the birds are always better than the fish.  Before I got the first hook out we saw a bald eagle soaring over the water.  I believe that this eagle’s summer haunts are usually farther north.

The fishing was slow and after a few bites with no hook ups we packed up and headed out on a birdwatching hike around the lake.  This hike is just good birdwatching-- we saw 12 different species.
We saw:
Bald eagle
Common ravens
American robins
Pine siskins
Hermit thrush
American three-toed woodpecker
Spotted sandpiper
Canada geese
Stellar’s Jay
Also saw something olive/yellow and warbler sized
Heard several birds that we just could not see to identify  

It was a lovely day but I wish I would have caught some fish.  I think the fish gods knew that I already have fish in the freezer.  I was very successful on my last foray to the lake.  Diane was not with me then.   I find it interesting-- I catch fish when Diane is not with me and I do not catch fish when she is there.  I think she sends secret psychic messages warning them that the best fisherman is on the lake.

Also, during the hike we heard a deep rumbling sound coming from up the mountain side. Diane wondered if it was bear with cubs.  On the return drive a yellow-bellied marmot ran across the road and we enjoyed beautiful clusters of our state flower, the blue columbine.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Field Notes 6.10.12

 Our destination this day was Pike’s Stockade in Conejos County where both yellow-billed cuckoos and southwest willow flycatchers have been seen.  Just yards from the entrance gate we drove past a small calf curled up beside the road. We weren’t sure if it was still alive but indeed it was. We gave it some bottled water and then managed to lift it through the barb wire fence into the field with the other cows. We were hopeful that it would reunite soon with its mother.  

As we walked down the road leading into Pike’s Stockade we encountered a creature of a different sort – a rattlesnake lying across the gravel. We took a photo of it but gave it a wide berth. We also saw a porcupine in a tree. The riparian area adjacent to Pike’s Stockade and just north of the Conejos River was full of an assortment of birds including southwest willow flycatcher, downy woodpecker, prairie falcon, yellow warbler, turkey vulture, several species of swallows, common nighthawk, American robins, black-headed and red-winged blackbirds, mourning dove, meadowlark and horned lark. We are certain that we heard the call of a yellow-billed cuckoo off in the distance during our calf rescue but we were unable to spot one. 

Driving north towards Alamosa on County Road 21 we saw 4-5 snowy egrets, several white-faced ibises and some killdeer in and along an irrigation ditch.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Field Notes 6.9.12 Zapata Falls

 We left home about 4 pm and started up the Zapata Falls Road after a straight run across the Mosca road.  The parking area was full but we found a spot at a day site.  We ate our trout and tortilla dinner at a secluded picnic table under a pinon pine.  There was still plenty of sunlight. What we had come for was the sunset’s evening glow when Diane said we would see black swifts flashing across the orange sky.

We walked up the new campground road. There were grand vistas of the sun as it crossed the Valley floor-- to the ending of its day.
 We started up the trail to Zapata Falls, going in the opposite direction of many people coming downhill. Like the sun, their day was ending. Our evening was yet to start. We could see that the fall area’s serene setting was still being enjoyed by many visitors.  Moving away from the crowd we headed up the trail to Zapata Lake. We stopped at a little opening in the forest--sitting quietly we heard way more birds than we saw but we did spot a western tanager and a yellow-rumped warbler.  We followed one bird by its song and by its flickering shape as it flitted through the forest canopy.  We called it the little bird with a big voice. After much peering and peeping and pishing, Diane finally got a good view and I followed with a good look--Diane identified it as a plumbeous vireo. We also saw a turkey vulture, common ravens and a possible Cooper’s hawk flying overhead.  
The sun began to touch the tops of the western San Juan Mountains as we made it to the falls and were serenaded by the beautiful cascading voice of a hermit thrush. All the day visitors had left -- no one was there. The place was empty, clean and looked as if the last visitors had been Mr. Pease Blossom and Mr.  Mustardseed. We climbed up to the slippery sloping sides of the canyon.  I told Diane it was dangerous but she said to “continue on undaunted.” I now call her Diane Danger, femme fatale birdwatcher.  We had gone up the stream to see a dipper but at the point where we were looking at wet feet if we continued we turned back-- Diane Danger dancing across the wet weathered rock.
Back on the lower stream on drier and more even ground the sun was setting and just as Diane predicted the fast-flying black swifts swooped overhead.  Their wings flashed gold in the fading rays of the late spring sun.
Now the sky was a dark blue and ribbon of orange gave the mountains a final relief against the night. A common nighthawk flew across the darkening north sky.
What a special day for us. After all the people who visited Zapata Falls today—I bet over a hundred-- we  were so lucky to have it alone, all to ourselves,  for such a beautiful sunset.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Field Notes 5.27.12

For Memorial Day weekend we went to the old Fort Garland to see the historical re-enactors with plans to do some birdwatching on the way home.  In the parking lot we saw a Say’s Phoebe sitting on a fence post. We enjoyed visiting with the uniformed men and women and hearing about the history of the Civil War period.

Our next stop was nearby Smith Reservoir. We have been hoping to add Clark’s grebe to our list and sure enough, there were several out on the water. We strolled along the water’s edge and saw a violet-green swallow, along with other swallows, darting in and out of the deciduous trees.

We headed back to Hwy. 160 and saw two turkey vultures soaring in the high winds. Up the road towards the Sand Dunes we stopped at the Nature Conservancy’s Zapata Ranch and birded the nature trail. Our first sighting was a gorgeous western tanager. The red and yellow bird is conspicuous among the green leaves of the tall cottonwoods. We also saw several western wood pewees, a northern flicker and a western bluebird. Near the parking lot at the end of the trail we saw an unusual looking dove land on the ground. It was very cooperative and allowed us to get a good look at it before it flew up into a tree. It was a white-winged dove, a rare spring sighting in the Valley.

Field Notes 5.25.12

We decided to follow the “Cat Creek Loop/Hot Creek State Wildlife Area tour as described in John Rawinski’s “Birding Hotspots of South-central Colorado.”  From Alamosa we drove west across Alamosa County Road 8S and stopped first at the south viewing area at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. This treed area was filled with many birds flitting to and fro. The common phrase coming from both of us was, “What’s that!! Oh no, what’s that!” As soon as we would see one bird and tried to identify it, another bird would fly by and when we turned back to the first bird it would be gone. We spent half an hour doing our best to get our binoculars on every bird we could. We saw a northern mockingbird, a yellow warbler, a Bullock’s oriole as well as bluebirds and finches. Diane even spotted a gorgeous gold rooster with a red comb crowing at the rising sun. We were torn between spending the morning identifying more birds or continuing on our chosen path. 
We drove down Hwy. 15 for about 12 miles to the point where it becomes a gravel road. The book indicated that we should begin searching the prairie dog villages for burrowing owls. We drove several miles without seeing an owl, but once we stopped the car and scanned the short-grass prairie we spotted a burrowing owl sitting beside a hole.  We had a nice visit with an Amish lady who was outside in her yard, binoculars in hand, looking for burrowing owls and mountain plovers. She said that she had heard the plovers but hadn’t seen any yet. 
We, too, searched for mountain plovers but were also unsuccessful. Many horned larks, however, did get our attention. We turned west at Road BB to Golden-winged Warbler Bridge where we saw a Lewis’s woodpecker and numerous swallows. We caught brief glimpses of flitting warblers and a hawk.
Our next stop was Hot Creek State Wildlife Area. The riparian area appeared to be drier than normal and the water birds were not as abundant as we had hoped. We did hear the “barking” of a black-crowned night heron but it moved away among the cattails whenever we approached. We saw mallards on the creek and cliff swallows flying in and out of their mud-daubed homes. 

We returned to FDR 255 and drove through pinyon/juniper habitat hoping to see red crossbills but we will have to wait to add this bird to our list. We turned onto FDR 250 into the Cat Creek area and parked for lunch. We saw a broad-tailed hummingbird and heard the raucous cries of Clark’s nutcrackers. After lunch we drove east on FDR 250 to a heavily treed area called Keen’s Grove next to a barn and corral. The bleating of sheep from nearby hillsides could be heard as well as the exuberant songs of a house wren and a chickadee.
We ended our birding day at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge where we saw ducks, avocets, ibises and coots. On the southern edge of the auto loop we saw a turkey vulture feeding on the desiccated body of badger.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Field Notes 5.21.12

Avian activity has definitely picked up along the Alamosa golf course river trail.  New sightings for us for the year included American goldfinches, a western wood peewee and a brown-headed cowbird. We also saw red-winged blackbirds, American robins, a house wren, black-billed magpies, a pair of mountain bluebirds, a mallard, starlings and mourning doves. Mammals included a porcupine in a tree, a ground squirrel on the golf course and mule deer.

Fiels Notes 5.20.12

The San Luis Hills south of Alamosa were our destination today. We drove south on Hwy. 285 to Antonito, then turned east at CR 8. We were treated to a verdant stretch of trees and flooded fields for about five miles. The mosquitoes were plentiful and we decided it would be a good idea to roll up the car windows. The habitat transitioned quickly to the arid, sage-covered San Luis Hills. We turned north on a BLM 4WD track about 1 ½ miles to John James Canyon. From there we hiked into the beautiful and isolated canyon. We were tantalized by beautiful bird songs from both sides of the canyon but actual bird sightings were hard to come by. Our first positive identification was a black-throated sparrow perched on a pinon tree. We also saw spotted towhees, common ravens and a Swainson’s hawk. We heard but didn’t see pinyon jays and western scrub jays. We stopped for a rest under a pinon tree and noticed a tiny rock wren on a nearby branch. Further up the canyon we saw a Cooper’s hawk searching for its next meal.

As we neared the truck after our five-mile hike we saw about 30 head of cattle milling near the gate through which we had to pass. As the cows moved away perpendicular to our approach they revealed a couple of bulls – just what we were hoping NOT to see - at the back of the pack. Thankfully the bulls moved on with the cows but stopped a couple of times to eye us suspiciously.
We ate our peanut butter sandwiches while sitting on the truck tailgate, then continued east on CR 8 to the lovely Lobatos Bridge, which spans the Rio Grande as it transitions from a flat, broad flow to the steep canyons of the southern San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico. A couple of species of swallows, western meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds are at home along this stretch of the Rio Grande.

Fields Notes 5.19.12

After a day of working around the house we decided to get in some late afternoon road birding with our destination being the South River Road CR 10 out of Alamosa. Several flooded farm fields were filled with Wilson’s phalaropes, American avocets, white-faced ibises and a lone snowy egret. Overhead a Swainson’s hawk landed in a tree and a red-tailed hawk soared on the thermals.

At CR CC we turned back north and saw a western kingbird and several white-throated swifts.
We stopped at the Alamosa Cemetery to look for warblers among the mature deciduous and evergreen trees. We were pleased to see a yellow warbler flitting from tree to tree. I also thought I saw a yellow-rumpled warbler. A mountain chickadee, robins, magpies, Eurasian collared doves and two hawks rounded out our cemetery tour.

Field Notes 5.9.12

Since we were going to Monte Vista for the monthly Friends of the Refuges meeting we decided to leave early, stop at Home Lake, pick up a couple of sub sandwiches for a picnic at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and then head to the meeting.

We knew that double-crested cormorants had been seen at Home Lake and we were hoping to see them ourselves. The lake was full of western grebes, blue-winged teals, coots and mallards. A white domestic duck paddling on the lake looked odd with its colorful wild brethren. We also saw Wilson’s phalaropes, American avocets and a sandpiper that was too far out to get a good I.D. We were puzzled by a gull but after a long look and a check of our Sibley’s guide we identified it as a California gull.

It was time to move on and we had yet to see a double-crested cormorant but just before leaving Diane spied two cormorants high in the trees. As we watched one dropped down, glided over the water and landed without a splash.
At the Monte Vista NWR we ate at the picnic table near the walking trail. Our dinner music was The Blackbird (red-winged and yellow-headed) Serenade. Beside the auto loop we saw an American bittern with its beak stretched high. Avocets, mallards, teals and coots floated on the water.
At the south slough we saw a black-crowned night heron perched on the water’s edge. With barely enough time to get to the meeting we spotted a great horned owl on a telephone pole as we drove north to Monte Vista.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Field Notes 4.28.12

 We started out for another fishing/birdwatching trip, this one to Big Meadow Reservoir, which lies halfway between South Fork and the summit of Wolf Creek Pass. When we arrived at the entrance the gate was closed and locked.  After some discussion we decided to hike the mile and half up the road to the lake and continue on undaunted.  During the hike we started seeing small yellowish/brownish birds.  They flitted in and out of the roadside willows and up to the fir trees. Their song was a musical trill.  We were a little stumped but later at home we studied our guides and listened to bird songs. We pondered whether they could be Cordilleran flycatchers or warbling vireos but after listening to the ruby crowned kinglet’s song we decided that was our bird.

Fishing was good at the lake.  In between bites we saw a northern flicker, a lone Canada goose and several small birds flying among the trees. I caught my limit of four fish within a short time. We had planned to hike around the lake but a storm started moving in. Since we had to hike back to the car we thought it best to leave the lake. During the return hike we saw a pair of mountain bluebirds. High up on a tree we saw a gray bird. In the flat light against the gray sky it was hard to tell what it was.  We think it might have been a Townsend’s solitaire.  Also, we saw a sparrow-like bird with a reddish cap, maybe an American tree sparrow.
Driving east on U.S. Hwy. 160 we saw more geese and ducks on flooded fields. In the air and along the roadside were hawks, red-winged blackbirds, crows and ravens.
Desiring just a little more in the way of birdwatching thrills, we stopped by Home Lake.  There we saw swallows, coots, western grebes and blue-winged teals. On the south side of the lake we saw a beautifully plumed snowy egret, a plain but efficient willet and more than ten long-billed dowitchers feeding in the mud.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Field Notes 4.24.12

 We combined fishing with birdwatching on a trip to Smith Reservoir.  I had scouted the place the day before during an unsuccessful fishing trip.  I saw eared grebes on the water, along with western grebes, ducks and geese. I also knew that Smith was going to be stocked with trout.

After couple of false starts we made it out to the reservoir at about 6 p.m. Diane saw the eared grebes right away, a new one for our count.
While I working my fishing rods-- green dough bait off the bottom and a worm on a slip float--Diane intently looked over the lake.
 At one point a pair of western grebes came close to me and began diving. It is true that you fish where the birds are. I cast in their general direction—and it disturbed them not a bit--one called and pointed its beak towards me as if to say—fish here,  fish here.
 While I was taking dinner out of the truck—sub sandwiches, chips and a sweet drink--Diane called that my rod had a hit. I caught one rainbow trout, the first of the season.  And Diane got us a blue-winged teal a new bird for our count.
The sun was setting so we packed up and headed west.  On the way out to the highway we stopped to identify a little brown bird flying into some cottonwoods.  We never saw what it was but looking up Diane saw a raptor.  It was a Swainson’s hawk, with its red shielded chest, perched high in the budding branches, a new bird for our count.
Diane was a better birdwatcher today than I was a fisherman.  She saw three new birds and I only caught one fish.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Field Notes 4.22.12

Our intended destination today was the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, but we were quickly sidetracked by a flooded farm field just east of Splashland off Hwy. 17. On one side of the county road we saw white-faced ibises, ring-billed gulls and water fowl. Hordes of yellow-headed blackbirds and red-winged blackbirds filled the nearby trees. The north field, also foot deep in water, was host to lesser yellowlegs, Wilson’s phalaropes, killdeer, ducks and geese.

We then headed up to the Sand Dunes, ate our picnic lunch while being serenaded by a chickadee and then hiked near the dunes/pinon boundary. The mid-day hike was not a good time to spot birds there, so we headed to the Mountville Nature Trail where we heard a northern flicker and saw a white-breasted nuthatch. Our next destination was Denton Spring, where we did our Christmas bird count. The area was alive with pinyon jays, scrub jays, Townsend’s solitaires, nuthatches, chickadees and robins.  We got back in the car and drove south to Medano-Zapata Ranch nature trail. We immediately spotted a yellow-rumped warbler, our first warbler of the season. Our next sighting was a pair of western bluebirds. As we rounded the nature trail, we spotted a peregrine falcon which stayed stationary long enough for us to identify its dark hood. Nuthatches, a northern flicker and mountain bluebirds enlivened our hike. We saw two Clark’s nutcrackers in trees as we left the Nature Conservancy property.
Returning to our fair town of Alamosa we decided to make one more stop at the flooded farm fields. We were glad we did because we identified a long-billed dowitcher, a first sighting for us.

Fields Notes 4.18.12

The Northwest Passage is what we call our birding route that starts at the wetlands (but dry this time of year) north of the Alamosa disc golf course.  After a hike through the woods we might drive north a ways and then west a ways as the spirit moves us.  We might go down dirt roads or paved roads or come to a dead end, but remember our goal is the Alamosa County Line Road that takes us back to Alamosa.  Down these roads we never know just what we will find in the fields and farmyards, ditch willows and rabbit brush, fence posts and power poles.

On this day we saw:
great horned owl, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, red-tailed hawk, common grackles, ravens, crows, Canada geese, yellow-headed blackbirds, killdeer.

You never know what you might see on the Northwest Passage. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Field Notes 4.14.12

A quick trip out to Smith Reservoir.  We saw two turkey vultures flying close to the ground. On the reservoir there were buffleheads, common golden-eyes, mallards, coots and ruddy ducks.  We hoped to see grebes at Smith and indeed we saw  numerous western grebes. Along the north shore we saw some white geese. They were too far away to distinguish between snow or Ross’s geese.  We thought they were probably snow geese in that they are the more common white goose in the  San Luis Valley.
Later, back in town, we saw a hairy woodpecker and a Brewer’s blackbird during our daily walk.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Field Notes 4.8.12

Anticipating a lovely and warm April evening, we packed a picnic dinner and drove yet again to Home Lake.  American avocets and yellow-headed blackbirds have returned to the Valley!  We walked the perimeter of Home Lake expecting to see the white pelicans that had been on the lake the day before but they had moved on to another body of water.

We drove on to Monte Vista NWR and ate our dinner at the picnic table near the first marsh. Our yellow-headed blackbird friends serenaded us with their drawn-out metallic choruses. Tree swallows looped and dived overhead. At the second slough we were happy to see that ruddy ducks, their cocky little tails pointed upward, were back in the Valley, too. Two marsh wrens scolded from the cattails and an American tree sparrow flitted around in the chico. 

On the return drive along CR108, a great horned owl swooped down from a power pole and flew directly in front of our windshield.

Field Notes 4.7.12

Our first stop of the day was Home Lake near Monte Vista. Seeing no new visitors we continued on undaunted.

At Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area we set out on the nature trail where we saw and heard a western meadowlark perched atop a low shrub. A little further on we spotted an American bittern standing stiffly with its neck and beak stretched in the air. Off in the distance were northern harriers circling the fields and two red-tailed hawks soaring high in the sky.
We were surprised to see a lone sandhill crane flying over the wetlands. We dubbed it, “The Last Sandhill,” as it appears to be the last sandhill left in the Valley.
Johnson Lake was full of mallards, cinnamon teals, northern shovelers and buffleheads. Near the parking area we heard and saw several song sparrows. We then cruised County Road T north of the SWA and were rewarded with a first sighting of the year of a loggerhead shrike. We observed it as it flew from a power pole to a fence top, down to the ground and back up to the power pole. 
From Russell Lakes we drove west to La Garita and then on to La Ventana (Spanish for window), also known as Natural Arch. We saw a Clark’s nutcracker, mountain bluebirds and mountain chickadees.
On the return trip to Alamosa we decided to stop again at Home Lake. Compared to the morning stop, Home Lake was bustling with activity at 3 p.m. We saw two great blue herons flying north of Rio Grande SWA. On the lake were about 30 American white pelicans. We also recorded first sightings of the year of white-faced ibises and Franklin’s gulls.
A great birdwatching day.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Field Notes 3.31.12

Our first destination this last day of March was San Luis Lakes State Park. As we were paying the park fee at the ranger station, a bird perched on the flagpole singing a lovely, slurred two-note greeting. We pulled out the Sibley’s Field Guide and quickly determined that the solitary songster was a Say’s Phoebe. 

We then hiked the south shore of San Luis Lake in pursuit of water fowl swimming on the far side of the lake. Because of San Luis Lake’s enormous size, it seemed no matter how far we hiked we couldn’t get close enough to identify the ducks. We decided to enact Plan B, hike back to the car and drive to the north end of San Luis Lake. We saw two pairs of horned larks flitting among the chico. Normally horned larks congregate in large groups but the advent of mating season means they are pairing up.
On this day it seemed that the birding hotspot was around the ranger station because upon returning to the car we first heard and then saw a sage thrasher sitting on the fence west of the building. Its song is reminiscent of a meadowlark but softer and sweeter.
At the north end of the lake the ducks were no more easily identifiable so we decided to move on to the Nature Conservancy’s Medano-Zapata Ranch. We had heard that there was a 1.5 mile nature trail loop there and were interested in checking it out. What a lovely setting and a fantastic spot for birdwatching!! We hiked among tall deciduous trees filled with northern flickers, nuthatches, robins and mountain bluebirds. We will definitely visit the ranch again when the warblers and other songbirds return to the Valley. We anticipate that the ranch’s proximity to the Valley floor on the west and the pinyon-juniper habitat at the base of Mount Blanca – combined with the deciduous forest at the center of the ranch – will be a birdwatcher’s paradise. 
As we headed home on Alamosa CR 4S we stopped to observe a hawk perched on top of a power pole. This particular hawk was very accommodating and allowed us plenty of time to look for field marks. This was a ferruginous hawk, not a common sighting in the San Luis Valley, we were thrilled to have seen it.

Field Notes 3.25.12

You know it is spring time in the Valley when a warm dry wind starts to blow, but not hard enough to keep a couple of steely-eyed birdwatchers inside.  We left home about 6 p.m. and headed to Home Lake. We had consulted our field guides and were hoping to see a green-winged teal and a pied-billed grebe.  Our expectations were rewarded at Home Lake.
 In addition to our green-winged teal and pied-billed grebe, we also saw American coots, common mergansers, gadwalls, red heads, cinnamon teals and northern shovelers. We identified a lesser yellowleg and several killdeer wading along the south shore. The teal, grebe and yellowleg were new birds for our one-year count.
We then headed to MVNWR at the Rio Grande County Road 3/7 entrance and counted 30 or so sandhill cranes at the center pivot.
We drove to the auto loop as the sun set and watched the truly wonderful sight of the cranes coming in to roost.  The number of sandhill cranes dropping out of the orange sky was reduced from our previous visits, but still we watched huge flocks coming in until it became too dark to see anymore.
As we left the refuge under the now starry sky we knew that with the coming spring migration our 2012 SLV Birdwatching Adventure is just beginning.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fiels Notes 3.17.12

In Search of Rosy Finches

We normally don’t go out into the field with the intention of searching for only one type of bird. However, knowing that rosy finches are in the Creede area for only a couple of months in February and March, we decided to head west and then north to the old mining town of Creede to see if we could spot any rosy finches. We felt that our odds of seeing a rosy finch were increased by the fact that Creede hosts three types of rosy finches – gray-crowned rosy-finch, brown-capped rosy-finch and black rosy-finch – which tend to flock together.  After turning up Hwy. 149 we stopped at Coller State Wildlife area, which runs adjacent to the upper Rio Grande. There we saw a Stellar’s jay and a Clark’s nutcracker. We also observed crows and ravens feeding on a deer carcass. Once in the town of Creede we scoped out a couple of small parks and drove through a residential neighborhood. No rosy finches. John Rawinski’s bird guide also suggested looking for rosy finches along Deep Creek Road south of Creede.  We saw horned larks and bunches of western bluebirds, but no rosy finches. Most of Deep Creek Road is lined with private property but at the east end of the road we were able to park, get out of the car and posthole through the snow to a conifer forest. We were tantalized by call notes and cheeping and thought perhaps our efforts were about to be rewarded. We patiently waited for the sweet chirpers to appear – not rosy finches but pine siskins.  By this time, our geriatric cat was due for his next dose of medication so we reluctantly ended our quest for the rosy finch and headed back to Alamosa. On the drive home we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that any day outside in the beautiful San Luis Valley is a good day.

Later during our prevening walk in town we stopped at the Rio Grande levee adjacent to Riverwood Drive and saw a great blue heron along the river bank. 

By the way, our bird count for our one-year SLV birdwatching odyssey is up to 62 species.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Field Notes 3.12.12

A walk along the Rio Grande at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge was, as always, good birdwatching. We saw a robin-size bird – black, gray and white. We were certain it was a shrike but didn’t have enough of a look to determine whether it was a loggerhead shrike or a northern shrike. We’ll keep an eye out for that one.  We followed a little brown bird out into the willows and finally saw our friend the song sparrow, a bird that has lured us into the willows on more than one occasion.

Near the far end of the trail we saw two bald eagles in a tree and one soaring overhead. The head and tail of one of the eagles was brownish and we thought this is probably the last year he will be with his ma and pa. On the way in and out we saw Canada geese and mallards on the now ice-free mighty river.

We had a pleasant and funny encounter with a couple  on the trail.  They  asked if we had seen any blue cranes.  What a wonderful question. Have you seen the blue crane? A question full of adventure and mystery  -  The Blue Crane…The Maltese Falcon…The Golden Fleece. 

We were confused at first by their question but it dawned on us that they had probably heard about the Crane Festival but confused (and mentally combined) sandhill cranes and great blue herons. In any case, we explained to them that they would have to venture onto the Monte Vista refuge to see the cranes.   We let the nice couple from the big city use our binoculars to see the eagles - all three then perched together in  the tree. It was a fun experience for us and we hope our new acquaintances buy a pair of binoculars and return to the Valley in search of the Blue Crane.