October 5, 2013
If you think ornithology is for the birds, think again, says Jeffrey Gordon.
In the same way that knowing a little about movies, sports and food is enriching, knowing bird basics can "add dimension, interest and zest to your life and your experience of the outdoors," says Gordon, president of the Colorado Springs-based American Birding Association.
The organization has more than 12,000 members from 44 countries and exists to inspire all people to enjoy and protect wild birds.
"People shouldn't feel like they're signing up for a college class," he says. "Bird watching can be fun and recreational."
And fall is one of the more exciting seasons to join the flock of gawkers. Birds that are here for the summer head south, and other birds come from the north to spend the winter.
"The deck is being shuffled, so it's a great time to be aware of birds," Gordon says.
Situated where the prairies meet the mountains, the Pikes Peak region is a favorite stomping ground for migratory birds. Some 500 species have been recorded in Colorado, more than 100 of which are "quite rare," Gordon says.
"We see the stragglers, the rare birds, so the area offers a lot of interesting birding opportunities," he says.
The region attracts four species of hummingbirds. Some pack up and move out as early as July, while others stay through September before making the long trek south, primarily to Mexico and Central America.
Birds that seek tropical weather in the winter need nectar and flower insects to survive, Gordon says, and also include warblers, orioles and tanagers.
Some, like the Swainson's hawk, fly as far as South America.
"Migration is dangerous: It's a high-risk strategy, so the payoff has to be good," Gordon says. "Those that migrate long distances do so for food availability or less competition for breeding territory."
Colorado's state bird designated in 1931, the lark bunting, also departs for warmer climates.
"It's interesting Colorado chose a state bird that's migratory - you'll see them go to southern Texas and northern Mexico," Gordon says. "The grasslands are the heart of their winter range."
Bird watchers eagerly await the return of the sandhill crane in late fall. Some 23,000 to 27,000 sandhill cranes migrate through the San Luis Valley. Peak fall migration is mid-October. By mid-November, most have left to winter in New Mexico and northern Mexico. Spring migration, en route to the greater Yellowstone area for breeding, peaks around mid-March.
With its characteristic long neck and legs and tufted feathers over the rump, the sandhill crane is beloved by amateurs as well as serious hobbyists.
"The big staging area in Colorado is the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge," Gordon says.
The American tree sparrow, hooded merganser, common goldeneye, northern shrike, rough-legged hawk and others also arrive here for the winter, some after breeding in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.
Dozens of species call the Pikes Peak region home year-round, including ravens, black-billed magpies, chickadees, nuthatches, bush tips, gray-horned owls, red-tailed hawks, grouse and prairie chickens.
"They're super adaptable; they tolerate hot summers and cold winters, and are able to find food and shelter," Gordon says. "They're like old friends."
To attract a variety of birds to your yard in the coming months, try filling bird feeders with sunflower seeds, he recommends. Cracked corn and suet also are good when the weather is chilly.
"The simplest thing to keep in mind is that birds need food, water and shelter," Gordon says. "Bushes and trees help birds hide and roost. A source of fresh water is helpful, and the easiest thing to do is plant native plants that produce fruits and berries that birds are used to eating."
The region has plenty of spots known for stellar bird watching, including Fountain Creek Nature Center, Garden of the Gods and its visitors center, Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Bear Creek Nature Center, Starsmore Discovery Center and Big Johnson Reservoir in the Security-Widefield area. Many have free birding programs.
Gordon also recommends connecting with other birders. His American Birding Association office, at 1618 W. Colorado Ave., can help, as can the local Aiken Audubon Society.