Wednesday, June 27, 2012
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.
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
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.
American three-toed woodpecker
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
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
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.