Where there’s water, there are birds.
I was in Monument Valley Park recently, walking along the trail, minding my own beeswax, when I glanced over at the duck pond.
Oh my goodness. Who? Is? That? No, not Timothy Olyphant (hubba, hubba) throwing stale bread to the ducks. Much better — a new bird sighting. My new guy was perched on a rock near the water, rocking his large, black body, with splashes of orange where his cheeks would be, if he were human. He held his glossy ebony wings open, almost as if he were flashing the rest of the pond’s population. (“Cover your eyes, baby geese!”)
The next logical steps? Take a photo and post a call for ID help on social media. Instagram came through first, when somebody told me he was a double-breasted cormorant. My chest puffed with pride — surely this was a rare water bird sighting in Colorado.
“It’s not weird for them to be there,” said April Estep, a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
But inspired by said cormorant, I’m on the hunt for new watery oases, and jonesing to spot a belted kingfisher, the No. 1 bird right now on my birding bucket list. They’re so adorable, with their long beaks and tufted head feathers, almost like they’ve been to the hairdresser and asked for the liberty spikes punk haircut.
Sounds like there might be a promising outcome to my search. According to Estep, there are many of the little guys here year-round. They feast on frogs, crawdads, little fish and the occasional lizard. They like a creek with a nice mud bank where they can burrow in, nest and roost, while also hunting from a tree branch on the edge of the water.
One excellent place to try my luck? Fountain Creek Nature Center, a hearty bird commune about 20 minutes south of town. Ebird (ebird.org), a large online database of bird observations, reports Fountain Creek Regional Park is El Paso County’s No. 2 birding hot spot, while the nature center’s cattail marsh area is No. 7. The No. 1 hot spot in the county is Chico Basin Ranch.
The nature center has long been a favorite place of mine to wander, with its five major habitat types: woods, ponds, creek, marshes and wetlands, and meadows. It’s a bird paradise. Some like to be high in the trees, including warblers searching for insects, while others prefer the ponds or marshes, such as great blue herons or the occasional snowy or great white egrets.
This month, an early Saturday evening haul did not include my nemesis, the kingfisher, but I certainly wasn’t sad about our stellar sightings: one big bird on the pond — probably a great blue heron — one bullfrog, bunnies aka hawk or owl snacks (run, bunnies, run!), two swoopy birds (bats?) and the evening’s greatest get: a barn owl.
We heard him before we saw him. As we turned to look at the giant tree from where his cries came, his giant wings came flapping out of the dark branches and he glided over our heads before landing on the trail about 50 feet away. The darkness didn’t allow us to see what he was doing, but I fear a bunny or vole was marking its last moments on Earth. I didn’t know it was a barn owl until I got home and Googled his screeching call.
That was a very lucky sighting, I’ve since learned, as barn owls are highly uncommon here. Jessica Miller, the nature center’s interpretive program coordinator, also heard the distinct bird of prey call around the same time of the month, and later also saw the owl. Nobody believed her. It wasn’t until a teen volunteer, who helped with the center’s summer camps, brought her the distinctive white and creamy-colored feather of a barn owl that everybody stopped teasing her. Soon enough another experienced Fountain birder saw the owl and Miller was vindicated.
It’s no wonder people questioned the sighting at the beginning of August. Ebird shows only a very small number of barn owls have appeared in Fountain Creek Regional Park throughout the years during the month of September.
“You have this forest with some pine trees and it’s on an edge. You’ve got a forest to hide in, but then it’s got this grassland and meadow situation where it can hunt wide open for little mammals,” said Miller. “There are so many types of habitats that you can get so many types of birds. Only 1 percent of Colorado is open water like this, so when you’re migrating from Canada to South America or wherever, this is a great place to stop.”
On a typical visit, you’re likely to see red-winged blackbirds, house finches, chickadees, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, great blue herons, nuthatches and perhaps a Mississippi kite, a small bird of prey.
This past spring, during one of the center’s two annual bird counts, birdwatchers noted 90 species throughout the park from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. It wasn’t the record, Miller said, but it was an excellent number. The fall bird count is Sept. 14.
Bird watching at the center is best in the early morning hours and at dusk, when some species like to migrate and owls prepare for the night’s hunt. Walk slowly, be quiet and carry big binoculars. Oh, and don’t wear white. The brighter the colors, the more obnoxious you are to a bird. Go with neutral earth tones.
It probably goes without saying, but when it comes to bird watching, being a lone wolf could be a good thing. The less people around you, the better. That means Willow Springs Ponds probably aren’t your best bet, where fishing is popular and kids are on the playground.
“Here at the nature center or on the center’s loop or regional trail closer to the creek,” said Miller. “Wherever you can grab a bunch of habitat types in a close area, it expands your chances of getting more species in a given time.”
Contact the writer: 636-0270