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Springtime best season for bird watching

Tom Wiesen
Photo by Dave Menke/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service The yellow-headed blackbird is a summer resident of local marshes. They can be spotted atop cattails.
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This is the first article in a series on bird watching. Over the next several weeks we will delve into the identification of hawks, falcons, ducks, flycatchers, thrushes, and more. Stay in tune with the Naturalist News, weekends in the Vail Daily.

Springtime is the best season for bird watching because our summer residents begin to arrive and migrating species stop to rest.

For the beginner, bird watching can be intimidating, since there are more 1,000 bird species found in the U.S. If you only bird watch in Colorado, there are about 400 species found here – a little less daunting.

I’ve heard people say, “they all look alike to me.” Although, once you establish a basic repertoire of birds that you know, you can then begin to establish differences and similarities in new species you encounter.

The term bird watching can conjure up an image of nerdy people dressed in drab clothing, peering over the shrubs with mini binoculars. In reality, I’ve found birders to be smart, often interesting people who are keen observers, in touch with nature and mentally good with details.

Bird watching is akin to advanced wildlife watching. That is, most of us can tell an elk from a deer, a bighorn from a mountain goat, and a beaver from a muskrat. However, there are only a handful of local mammals compared to the large number of bird species.

Furthermore, most birds share similar physical characteristics, in that they all have a bill, wings, and a tail. Beyond these basic similarities you will find that each type of bird is truly a unique and fascinating species.

Portable hobby

One thing that makes bird watching trick is they are tough to see. Most birds are smaller than our hand and quite often they are flitting here and there or are in flight.

To view birds in the field, you need to have binoculars and once you decide you’d like to do it regularly, you should buy a spotting scope on a full-sized tripod. The magnification of a scope often gives you a perfect image of the bird, which makes identification readily possible.

Although bird watching can be learned on your own, try to go out with a more experienced birder, or consider hiring a guide. You will learn more about birds and habitats in a single day with an experienced birder than you could in an entire season of bumbling about by yourself.

One nice thing about bird watching is that you can do it for your entire life – you can do it from home, when you travel and when you’re driving in your car. Some people bird watch when they travel while others travel to bird watch. Birds are everywhere you want to be.

Winged variety

Choose a specific habitat – a marsh, for instance; watch for movement and listen closely for sounds. You should position yourself with the sun to your back to optimize color quality and clear viewing.

Once you see a bird with your naked eye, remain focused on it. Then holding perfectly still, bring the binoculars up into your line of sight. This is the tried and true method of finding a bird quickly, as you may have only a few moments to observe it.

Continue to observe the bird as long as possible before turning to your field guide. Look for overall size and field marks. Is it robin sized? Bigger or smaller than a robin? Is it small, compact and chunky? Or, is it slender overall with a long tail?

What are the basic colors on its sides, chest, head, back and tail? Are there wing bars? What is the shape of its bill? Is it slightly curved, short and stout, long and thin?

What is the color of its eye? Is it black, gold or red? Does it have a white ring around its eye? What color are its legs?

When you ask yourself these questions, you will quickly realize that most birds, in fact, do not look alike.

Rare feathers

Once the bird flies off, and is out of sight, ask yourself, “What was the bird doing?” Was it foraging on seeds? Was it gleaning insect larvae? Was it flying from a perch capturing insects in mid air?

Then ask yourself, “Where did I see it?” Was it on the ground? Was it in a low shrub? Was it in the top of a tall pine? Was it in a juniper? Or was it on a wire?

Often where a bird was seen – and what it was doing – are amongst the best clues. My best birding companion, John Amoroso, says the first three things to think about when trying to identify a new bird are habitat, habitat and habitat. In other words, certain birds are found only in specific habitats.

To illustrate this point, I was recently out on a birding mission when the hand of god steered my vehicle up a dirt road near 4 Eagle Ranch. Seeing a hawk-like bird soaring overhead, I pulled my car over behind some willows and whipped out my scope and binoculars.

By the time I was set up, the hawk had flown out of sight, but I did hear a strong, flute-like, melodious song – that I did not recognize – coming clearly from the ridge above. Humans can pin point where sound is coming from quite well so use your ears when birding.

When I got the bird in my scope, I realized it was a species I had not seen before. It was light gray overall, seemingly chunky, with grayish streaks running down its breast. It definitely had a long, thin, down-curved bill.

It flew to a second juniper and I noticed it had a long tail. Again, it had a great complex song. After it flew away, I said to myself, “it reminds me of a mockingbird,” which I had seen and heard many times on my birding travels through New Mexico and Texas.

I looked up mockingbird in the field guide, which led me to the closely related thrashers. I had seen brown thrashers in Texas, but knew they did not occur here.

I flipped the page and there it was – identical to the bird I saw above me, perched in a juniper, surrounded by sagebrush. It was a sage thrasher, a bird considered uncommon in Eagle County, a life-lister for me.

Coming soon

Something to remember is birds are, in fact, observing you, so it is best to be stealthy and pretend you are not interested in them. Use your car or tall shrubs as a blind. Also, it is best not to point at birds – if it was you up on the hillside and somebody below pointed up at you, you would know you were spotted.

Keep a journal of your bird sightings: where you saw them and the date. You will refer to it in later years to remind yourself when certain birds arrive and what habitat you saw them in.

Yellow-headed blackbirds are due to arrive any day at the marsh behind the wastewater treatment plant in Edwards. Keep your eyes peeled for the coots there, as well.

I saw a wood duck on Nottingham Lake last week and white-faced ibis will grace the flooded fields up Lake Creek in the next couple of weeks. Remember, during this spring and summer birding season, to keep your binoculars handy and your eyes open.

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 827-5363.


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