River birds dabble, dip and dive
One great thing about bird watching is that you can enjoy it while you’re doing other activities, such as hiking, biking, fishing or sight-seeing.
A bird watching trip to the river is worthwhile to view the wide diversity of birds. Some of these birds are year-round residents, but some birds are only passing through, and now is the best time of year to see migrating species.
One of my favorite river birds is the great blue heron, which wades quietly in the shallows in search of fish.
The heron is about 3 feet tall, with very long legs, a large body and long neck with a yellow spear-like bill. It is bluish-gray with black and rusty highlights. Black feather plumes drape down the back of its head.
In flight, the heron’s 6-foot wingspan is impressive as it flaps steadily and slowly. This pre-historic looking bird makes it easier to imagine that birds are descendants of dinosaurs. These magnificent herons are now nesting at the Gypsum ponds.
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Another great bird to see at the river is the belted kingfisher. Kingfishers perch conspicuously along the riverside, where they watch the water closely for movement. Then the bird plunges head first into the water to nab fish and other prey with its sharp, stout bill.
The kingfisher measures about 13 inches in length, is gray-blue with a shaggy crest on its head, a white band around its neck, and an oversized bill.
The river also attracts insect-eating birds – watch the willows and other shrubs along the river for tiny, flitting bright-yellow warblers. Warblers arrive as insects become more plentiful with warmer weather.
The yellow warbler is the most common here, and they flit constantly while gleaning insects that are buzzing out of the wind in shrubs.
Aquatic insects are a part of the American dipper’s diet. These plump, little gray birds bob up and down on rocks near the water, dive into running water and swim duck-like on the surface.
The American dipper is an interesting aquatic bird in that does not have webbed feet. Instead, the dipper is equipped with powerful wings that it uses underwater, as if it were flying to the river’s bottom to snatch up aquatic insects and larvae.
You’ll often see a dipper reach near its tail with its bill to spread oil from a special gland which helps keep the dipper’s feathered shell waterproof.
But not all birds are as lucky as the dipper when it comes to repelling water. The feathers of the double-crested cormorant aren’t as waterproof, so this bird is often seen on a rock or tree on the riverbank drying its wings in the sun.
The cormorant is a large, dark-colored aquatic bird with a yellow face and long bill with a down-curved hook at the tip. Powerful legs and large webbed feet enables the cormorant to dive to considerable depths to capture fish.
Cormorants are migrating through the valley and are most likely to be seen in deeper sections of the Eagle River in western Eagle County or in Glenwood Canyon.
Dabbling and diving
Then of course, there are ducks – dabbling and diving ducks that can be distinguished by their distinct behaviors in the water.
Diving ducks completely disappear under the water and may not be seen again for about 30 seconds. They can swim to depths of 20 feet to capture fish. But diving ducks must run across the surface of the water in order to take flight whereas dabblers can blast straight into the air without a runway.
One of my favorite diving ducks is the common merganser. This year-round resident may at first glance look like a mallard. Like the mallard, the male merganser has a brilliant green head, but differs in that the sides of its body are completely white, he has doesn’t have a white neck ring, and his bill is bright orange and pointy.
One of the best ways to distinguish mergansers from mallards is to look at the accompanying female. The striking female has a fun-looking hairdo that sticks up like she’s having a bad hair day. Mergansers, like other diving ducks, sit lower in the water than their dabbling cousins.
The best example of a dabbling duck – or puddle duck – is the mallard. Mallards do not dive, but instead reach under the water with their beak to the shallow bottom, causing their rear ends to stick up in the air.
Mallards have bright orange legs that are highly visible when they are tipped up, and are useful for quick identification.
The dabbler’s diet differ from divers in that these ducks are usually feeding on aquatic vegetation, insects and invertebrates, which are found in shallow waters or ponds.
Lastly, the osprey is a raptor that hunts fish with a spectacular aerial dive in which it plunges feet first to grab a fish with its talons.
The osprey is white and black overall, and is the most likely hawk-like bird to seen flying over water. With a 5-foot wingspan, osprey are powerful birds that carry away sizable fish to a nearby perch where it tears the flesh for eating with its hooked bill.
The river is habitat for many magnificent birds. If you’re a careful observer, you can see a wide variety of species in one location.
Remember to scan the surface of the water, the shore, the shrubs, the trees and the air. As long as we have healthy streams and rivers that produce quality food sources, Eagle County will continue to host a great diversity of birds throughout the seasons.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are the owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, birding, and wildlife watching tours. Contact Trailwise at (970) 827-5363.