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.