Vail Daily column: Waterbird migration in the in-between zone |

Vail Daily column: Waterbird migration in the in-between zone

Betsy Holter
Curious Nature
Vail, CO Colorado

Birds migrate because they can fly. They do not have to make do when conditions for reproducing and staying alive are less than ideal. When you can fly, as we all know, your choices expand in a big way. Not all birds migrate and not all migrators move long distances, though some perform monumental feats of endurance. The 3.5-ounce arctic tern, for instance, makes epic pole to pole trips twice a year. The American robin looks around at food supplies and sometimes decides to stay put for the winter.

In the continental U.S., there are four major bird migration routes – highways in the sky that are frequented by birds who move north in the spring and south in the fall. Our north-south running mountain ranges separate the two coastal routes from the two central ones. So we birdwatchers who live in Vail are hampered in our spring and fall quests for unusual birds by being on a mushy dividing line between the Pacific and the central flyways, and also by being high in the mountains, a place not frequented by nearly as many birds as coastal areas or even the vast grassy expanses and deciduous forests of the middle of the country.

I migrated to Vail from Minnesota, where birdwatchers trip over each other during migration season. The footprints of Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox are everywhere – all filled with water. Picture a giant Bosselman’s truck stop for waterfowl on the move. Buffleheads, mergansers, grebes, shovelers, and more make their way through the state twice a year. And of course the loons send up their haunting cries from lakes right in the middle of the city. In Vail? No loons for sure. But there is a place that fills the requirements for migrating water birds who happen into our air space, and it is worth a periodic “glassing,” as serious birders say, during migration seasons.

Migratory waterfowl need open, relatively still water that contains the microorganisms, bugs, fish and plants that they thrive on. The rushing waters of mountain creeks and rivers are not suitable, but where they slow and pool, and life forms take root, birds will pause, rest and eat. Just on the west side of Edwards, there is a cattail-lined pond on the east side of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District treatment plant. Ponds such as this are favorites of bird watchers. They are chock full of the grasses and other plants that harbor the bacteria and microorganisms that birds feed on and the dense plant life provides needed shelter and safety from predators. Birds love this pond and the lazy part of the river just across the road. And this isn’t like the famous bird-attracting Brownsville dump. All water treatment is done indoors and there are no odors..

When I checked out the pond and the river in September, the only visible ducks were mallards – but mallards were more than I’d seen all summer in East Vail. Numerous Brewer’s blackbirds poked around on the opposite shore. The best part about the morning was a familiar sound that I’ve missed since moving here, one that signaled spring in Minnesota. A blackbird pair flew out over the water and flashed their red epaulets. Red-winged blackbirds. In Minnesota they will head south soon. Will they stay here in this milder place? I could ask someone who knows, but I think I’d rather keep an eye on them – and on any other birds that pause here during their travels.

If you want to check out the water treatment pond and the placid part of the Eagle alongside, travel west on highway 6 through Edwards. Turn right on HillCrest and then right again on Lake Creek just across the bridge. The plant is on your left and there is a gravel pullout on the bank of the river. Keep a list and let us know at Walking Mountains Science Center what birds you see over the course of the year – post your results on our blog here: You only see unusual birds when you go looking for them.

Betsy Holter is a medical writer (byline Elizabeth A. Reid, M.D.) and a volunteer at Walking Mountains Science Center.

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