Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Field Notes 2.26.12

A windy day – we headed east across Estrella Road, which saddles the Alamosa/Costilla county line. A bald eagle lifted off towards the morning sun, its white head and tail feathers shining in the sun’s reflection. Our destination was the open water at Smith Reservoir. Brian was planning to fish but it was too windy for a fish camp. The only thing we set up was the spotting scope.

On the west side of the lake we were struck by the large number of crows. On the water and along the shore were Canada geese, northern pintails, mallards, common mergansers, common golden eyes and redhead ducks. It was difficult to identify the ducks because they were bobbing up and down in the wind-induced waves.  We crossed the bridge to the open water at the point of land that in wetter times is an island.  Several ring-billed gulls strutted near the ice ledge. About 200 sandhill cranes lined the western shore. Four mature bald eagles and a very young bald eagle perched in the center of the frozen portion of the lake. The juvenile flew low over the lake and stirred up the ducks. Everywhere along the shore we flushed out flocks of horned larks.

Field Notes 2.25.12

Driving west on Alamosa CR 8 our goal was the Monte Vista refuge. We brought a sandwich to share for our sundown supper.  On the east side of the refuge we saw a bald eagle surveying his domain from the top of a tree.  A western meadowlark landed on the chico nearby and serenaded us with a song about spring.

We spent quite a bit of time trying to identify what we thought were dark brown sparrows flitting through the chico. Our best guess was that they might be vesper sparrows but that species usually doesn’t arrive in the San Luis Valley until mid-spring. Later at home we decided we had seen a flock of female red-winged blackbirds – a rookie mistake.
Undaunted—we continued on (Reed knows the story behind that phrase).
At the refuge viewing area along Hwy. 15 we were entertained by flocks of Canada geese and sandhill cranes landing to the east and to the west. The setting sun turned Mount Blanca red, bathing the birds in a reddish glow. The honking geese, trilling cranes and quacking ducks provided more spring music.
Before darkness arrived we headed into the refuge and parked near a big slough. This was the closest we had been to the cranes as they parachuted down from the darkening skies. We had close up views of their red caps and brown feathers on their rumps. We shared our sandwich and chips and took in the wonder of it all.
As we drove away from the refuge we made a pledge that on the next weekend we’ll return early in the morning to watch the sun rise and witness the cranes’ morning lift off.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Field Notes 2.18.12

 A rough-legged hawk and a golden eagle were our first observations of the day as we drove out to the Bluff Overlook at the Alamosa NWR.   At Hansen’s Bluff the only sign of life was a herd of elk, their dark brown hides contrasting with the golden dried grasses and white ice of the frozen playas.  Hiking down the trail south of the bluff we saw a bald eagle in a tree and another on the wing.  A little dark bird flew across the trail only to be lost in the tall yellow grass and left unidentified. 

We then headed east into Costilla County on Boulder Road and saw several flocks of fast flying horned larks.  Our destination was Smith Reservoir, where Brian had found open water at mid-lake and on the eastern shore while ice fishing on Feb. 17. Ducks were plentiful and included mallards, northern pintails, lesser scaups, common golden-eyes and a couple of redheads. Our spotting scope perched on the truck tailgate was invaluable for identifying the birds.  Canada geese mingled with about 100 sandhill cranes – a surprise sighting. Driving back to Alamosa across Estrella Road we saw more hawks, eagles and some really mean farm dogs.

Field Notes 2.15.12

 We took a special trip out the Monte Vista NWR with our son Reed, who drove down from Denver for a visit. All his life Reed had heard us talk about the sandhill cranes, but growing up in Colorado Springs he hadn’t had the opportunity to see them. We timed our twilight field trip perfectly and were rewarded with waves and waves of sandhill cranes, Canada geese and ducks soaring in and landing on the open water. Rather than trying to identify waterfowl species, we instead enjoyed the big picture – the vast skies of the San Luis Valley, the glorious hues of the Sangre de Cristos at sunset and the bustling commotion of hundreds of birds. We took time to observe two bald eagles sharing a meal of what we presumed was once a duck, now reduced to feathers and gore spread across the ice.  On the auto route we saw a hawk sitting on a kill while a prairie falcon (which was probably trying to reclaim its dinner) swooped and dived at the much bigger hawk. Several nearby mule deer were oblivious to the raptor drama. Thanks for sharing a fantastic evening with us, Reed!

Field Notes 2.11.12

Heading down South River Road out of Alamosa we glimpsed several Canada geese.  Farther on several ravens mobbed a golden eagle.  On the west side of the road a tree held two bald eagles, perched side by side.  Turning onto the county line road (CR CC – RD 15S), two red-winged blackbirds flew in front of the car and landed in a bush, joining several other red-wings. This was our first red-wing sighting this year.  Continuing the theme of twin raptors, we spied two rough-legged hawks sitting next to each other on a power pole. Next we saw a juvenile bald eagle along S CR 6 E – S 100 RD – its dirty white head feathers indicated it was probably in its fourth year.

At Monte Vista NWR we observed a herd of about 30 pronghorns. We took a nice walk along one of the refuge roads but avian activity was nil. Back in the car we stopped for a while to admire a prairie falcon perched atop a tree.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Field Notes 2.4.12


With reports coming in of sandhill crane sightings at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, we finished our morning  errands and headed west around noon.  Before we left we read a report from  John R.--60 cranes at CR 7S and CR 3E.

Heading west across CR 8S we saw a red-tailed hawk resting on a power pole and nearer the refuge a golden eagle flying to the north.  Just past the county line Diane saw cranes on the wing. Seven cranes--the first of the spring migration and the first for our SVL Birdwatching Odyssey.   We then turned north on  CR 3S and onto the refuge at CR 7S. In a short time we came close to three sandhill cranes-- gray and brown backs. Both parties were surprised and the cranes took to the sky, leaving us tied to the ground on two spindly legs.
 A small coyote roamed across a field looking hungry for food.
 We turned north and at the main refuge entrance we saw four more cranes in the air.  Driving the auto loop we saw four mule deer, but the sloughs were as empty as window panes of an abandoned  house. 
Next stop was Home Lake and the Rio Grande State Wildlife Area.  We walked on crunchy  snow and muddy paths to see our friend the magpie. We heard Canada geese flying to the north. We took a side trip to check out Higel SWA off of Three Mile Road. It seems to be open by permit only – we will look into this more. Driving back to Alamosa we saw song sparrows in tall brown weeds beside the road.
We arrived home thinking that with the cranes comes the promise of  spring.