Sunday, March 18, 2012
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
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.
We started this weekend with a Birder’s Breakfast - a breakfast burrito - which I think should be the traditional breakfast of birdwatchers and birders. Our first activity of the day was a bird walk with the Valley’s birding authority, John Rawinski. We began on the south side of the Home Lake Veterans Center, where tall fir trees as well as tanks, a jet airplane and a cannon covered the grounds. We saw pine siskins, a nuthatch, a magpie and a house sparrow.
Moving into an open area we saw cranes circling high on thermals, getting altitude for the next leg to their nesting grounds.
On the north side of the property facing the Rio Grande to the north and a service lagoon to the west, the group spotted a northern flicker on a distant tree branch, two killdeer across the marsh on the levee and two bald eagles soaring high overhead. We also saw a house finch, a dark-eyed junco and a song sparrow.
The hour-long walk was very enjoyable. Before leaving we had John sign our copy of his birding guide, Birding Hotspots of South-Central Colorado.
After a rest at home in Alamosa, we headed back to Monte Vista and climbed on board a yellow school bus loaded with enthused crane watchers for the Sandhill Sunset Tour. A snowy rain came in just before the buses start to load. The late afternoon (prevening) turned cold and gray as the bus headed south to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. The first stop at the refuge was the wooded observation area on the south side. The cranes were close. We could see their red and white heads and the rusty color on their backs—a dusty pigment from the clays that the birds paint themselves with as camouflage on their nesting grounds.
Across the roosting area the cranes congregated with geese. We saw two white spots and thought snow geese. Talking with one of the guides he agreed they were snow geese but we decided to come back the next day when the light was better and we could confirm the sighting.
We continued on to the auto loop and the other pull outs and then headed further south to CO 370 looking for cranes in the cultivated fields but saw only a few birds. We wondered if the stormy weather was keeping the cranes further afield. Usually when the sun sets the refuge skies are filled with thousands of cranes and geese. This evening it was more like the high hundreds. But it was still an impressive sight.
Our tour guide, a employee from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, entertained us with sandhill crane facts and stories. The other birdwatchers on the trip also enjoyed the tour and said the cranes and the San Luis Valley were spectacular.
We returned for Day 2 of the Crane Festival on Sunday and boarded the yellow school bus for the Valley Raptor Tour guided by Hawks Aloft. On Hwy. 15 south we stopped to try to identify the shadowy figure of a raptor in poor morning light in a shady, shaggy tree.
On the MVNWR we saw red-tailed hawks and golden eagles flying on high. At Home Lake we saw red-tailed hawks, a northern harrier and bald eagles. An American coot, common mergansers and cinnamon teals swam in the canal.
Returning to the Ski Hi complex our band of happy raptor watchers disembarked from the bus and the two of us drove down to the refuge to find those white geese. After a fair amount of searching we found them at the southwest observation area mingling with the Canada geese. We determined that they were indeed snow geese on their northward migration.
Our Monte Vista Crane Festival count yielded 27 birds and four new birds for our SLV bird count.
Killdeer on the ground
Pine siskins in fir trees
Snow geese with Canada geese
Cinnamon teals in irrigation canal
A great weekend in the San Luis Valley.
To celebrate the start of the Monte Vista Crane Festival we decided to explore the crane action on the east side of the Valley. From Mosca we drove east on CR 4N and saw three beautiful western bluebirds sitting on a fence post. We zigged and zagged our way southeast looking for cranes in the cultivated fields. We stopped at an artesian pond which was filled with Canada geese, northern pintails, gadwalls, American widgeons, redheads, mallards, northern shovelers and buffleheads.
We scoured the county roads – south, then east, then south, then east, then south – but saw nothing. Once we reached U.S. Hwy. 160 we traveled on to Smith Reservoir and found our sandhill cranes loafing on the north shore. The open water also held many ducks, geese and several gulls strutting at the ice edge. Large flocks of horned larks appeared and quickly disappeared as we drove along the rocky shore.
Back in Alamosa we stopped at a nearby marsh and saw a great-tailed grackle singing from a tree top.
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Sunrise with the Sandhill Cranes.
Just a glimmer of light illuminated our path when we left the house at 5:30 a.m. and drove west to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. When we parked at the pull-out near the first big slough we could hear the cranes and geese but could barely see them on the dark valley floor. The sky began to turn orange as the sun rose over the rim of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. We ate breakfast burritos, drank our coffee and settled in for the crane show. Several vehicles pulled in next to us. Out popped birders with camera equipment. We are used to being alone at the refuge but the sandhill cranes draw observers from across the state and beyond.
The full sun revealed hundreds of sandhill cranes to the south and west. Many, many geese and ducks shared the marshes with the cranes. American coots swam nearby. A flock of red-winged blackbirds landed in the dried cattails, their songs added a sweet chirp to the cranes’ chorus and geese’s glee. The cranes became more and more restless and we saw several engage in mating dances. As the cranes began lifting off, the geese and ducks added to the flocks filling the brightening sky. What a lovely sight.
After leaving the refuge we drove up Rio Grande County Road 3 East to Home Lake where we saw a bald eagle in a tree overlooking the river. Heading east across Stanley Road we spotted sandhill cranes in the center pivot fields, in a pasture with a herd of cattle and even in the chico and rabbitbrush in Alamosa County. Back in Alamosa we stopped at Riverwood Pond and saw mallards, buffleheads, Canada geese and ring-necked ducks.