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Big birds bouncing back

Dennis Webb
Vail, CO Colorado
Kara K. Pearson/Post IndependentNoah Shiflett, 7, of New Castle, watches two eaglets perched in their nest near the Roaring Fork River.
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Rick Lofaro peered into the sunset at the confluence of Cattle Creek and the Roaring Fork River last week, watchful for takeoffs and landings.

“It literally looks like an airport around here all the time,” he said.

Lofaro wasn’t complaining like a resident who lives at the foot of a runway. Rather, as executive of the nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy, he’s quite happy about all the aviation activity, which is the result of herons nesting in trees high above the river.

Better yet, a pair of ospreys is breeding on a platform on a power pole in the same area. And a few miles upstream, bald eagles have been rearing eaglets for four years now.

The presence of all these large birds excites not only Lofaro but many other lovers of birds, and of wildlife in general. About 30 showed up Thursday and others had to be turned away for space reasons when the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Colorado Division of Wildlife and other organizations offered the public the chance to view the eagles, herons and osprey.

Cattle Creek resident Janet Earley said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to view Aspen Glen’s pair of eaglets, “since I don’t live at Aspen Glen.”

The private golf course and residential development opened its gates to the general public to view the eaglets, which may be at Aspen Glen only because of the restrictions the development agreed to in order to protect the historical eagle habitat there. A 200-yard buffer zone and closed golf course hole give the eagles space to raise their young.

“There’s a high level of protections here,” Lofaro said.

“I definitely think those protections have helped,” added John Groves, the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s district wildlife manager in Carbondale.

When the protections were put in place, eagles weren’t breeding. But that changed when a pair produced eaglets two years in a row.

After tour participants got to peer at the dark-colored young birds through high-powered scopes, the raptor tour shifted to the Cattle Creek area. Getting to within sight of the herons and osprey required a short drive over a rocky and barren landscape, the result of earthmoving to make way for the intended Bair Chase housing and golf course development. The development ended up in foreclosure, and the bank sold the property to another developer in December.

Johanna Payne lives in a home overlooking the property and the heron nests. She’s a member of Rookery Watch, an organization that monitors heron populations in the region, and she laments the impacts of the earthmoving and loss of ditches and irrigated ranchlands on the property.

“It’s affected everything ” the elk, the deer and the birds,” she said.

With the bulldozers long gone, though, more than 20 nesting pairs of herons occupy nests on the property today. On Thursday, they could be seen feeding their squawking young and flying around with sticks to shore up their skimpy, fragile nests along the Roaring Fork River.

The herons are the beneficiaries of a conservation easement placed years ago on several dozen acres of waterfront land to protect them.

Lofaro called the easement “a really good move for all the wildlife.”

“The herons just served as the tool for (getting) it,” he said.

Another species to take advantage of the easement’s breathing space is the osprey.

Lofaro was among the first to spot ospreys in the Cattle Creek area several years ago, but immediately became concerned because the birds were hanging around power poles, and risked being electrocuted. When he contacted Xcel Energy, the utility agreed to put up a platform on top of one of the poles so the ospreys could nest there safely.

Sure enough, they did. In 2005, a pair of ospreys had a baby at Cattle Creek. They have continued breeding at the site.

Lofaro loves the black and white birds, with their boomerang-shaped wings. He said they plummet with their talons extended into the water to go after fish, and once they are airborne they flip their prey headfirst for improved aerodynamics.

An avid angler, Lofaro also loves what the presence of fish-eating ospreys, herons and eagles says about the state of the lower Roaring Fork River.

“When you see them eat fish, it means the rivers are healthy here,” he said.

Crystal River Valley resident Melissa Waters also was excited by the presence of the ospreys, and the chance to spot them on Thursday.

“I’ve never seen one,” she said.

She and others got to look through scopes and see what appeared to be the mother osprey sitting on her nest atop the power pole, waiting for her eggs to hatch and rotating her head to keep an eye on her surroundings. Earlier, at Aspen Glen, Lofaro thought he saw the father in flight.

Waters and Earley have been on other Roaring Fork Conservancy nature outings and said they appreciate the educational opportunities.

“These guys do a great job,” Earley said.


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