Vail’s Curious Nature: Warm weather residents flying back to Valley |

Vail’s Curious Nature: Warm weather residents flying back to Valley

Becca Frager
Community correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Becca Frager is a winter naturalist at Gore Range Natural Science School, where she teaches people about ecology and helps them explore the great outdoor

VAIL, Colorado – Spring is here, ski season has come and gone, and change is abundant in the Vail Valley. Seasonal residents have moved on to find new jobs and different playgrounds.

Bustling ski towns and fluffy snow brought excitement to the Vail Valley, but as the community quiets down, a different scene is painting the landscape. Snow is melting, streams are running, weather is getting warm, and a different population of colorful residents are flying into town.

These warm weather residents aren’t flying in through the Eagle County Airport, but you can spot their colorful feathers and hear their songs as they soar across the sky. Look for the red breast of the American robin, the cheerful yellow of the Wilson’s warbler or listen for the high pitched “chipping” sound of the well-named chipping sparrow.

As temperatures rise, these birds, along with several others, return to the Valley from their southern homes. It’s easy to see why migrating birds are making their way back to the region, but hard to remember the conditions that forced many of them to move south a few months ago.

There are many reasons for this annual migration. In late autumn, as Jack Frost enters the Valley, birds need a high amount of calories to produce enough heat to survive the freezing temperatures. Finding enough calories is impossible for some species.

Shorter winter days mean less daylight hours for birds to search for food, and for some, their food is simply not around anymore. Many of the plump, juicy insects that fly and crawl through Colorado in the summer die or become dormant in winter, forcing the barn swallow, dusky flycatcher and other insect-eating birds to move to warmer climates to forage.

Aromatic flowers, which produce the sweet nectar hummingbirds enjoy, are also absent from the scenery in winter, forcing these sugar-loving birds to move south for food. Of course, there are some birds, such as the fluffy chickadee, the regal Stellars jay and the acrobatic crow that have diets that allow them to stay in the Valley year-round, but for many others the harsh realities of winter are too much.

The journey south is no easy task. Birds need a tremendous amount of energy to fuel their annual commute. Most birds don’t eat much while migrating and need to build up fat reserves before they travel. Migrating birds may store up to 50 percent of their body weight as fat and will burn this all off during their trip.

Unfortunately, about 25 percent of the birds that leave Colorado to escape the Winter, won’t make it back in the spring. Several variables, such as foul weather and collisions with wind turbines, airplanes and the glass windows of skyscrapers can prove fatal to many. Deforestation and destruction of the wetlands birds use for rest stops and food is another migration danger.

Birds also need to be excellent navigators to keep from getting lost. Scientists have shown that some birds find their way by using visual cues such as mountain ranges, rivers, the sun and stars. Studies have even shown that birds might be able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and use their own, built-in compass for navigation.

There is still much to be learned about how birds manage to find their way through miles of hazardous and ever-changing terrain each year. One thing is certain – migration is tough and dangerous work.

Today in the Valley, as the sun is shining and we say hello to mud season, we might notice a worm crawling. We might also notice the red breast of that American robin, who successfully made it back to Colorado despite her recent, perilous trip. We might even notice this impressive traveler as she picks up that worm and enjoys the delicious, hardy meal that she came so far to get.

When you notice the robin and other migrating birds this spring, smile and remember how hard these joyful feathered residents worked to return back to our area.

Becca Frager is a winter naturalist at Gore Range Natural Science School, where she teaches people about ecology and helps them explore the great outdoors. The Gore Range Natural Science School’s Curious Nature column appears Mondays in the Vail Daily and on (

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