Friday 24 December 2021

The Midwest - Day 2 - the Eastern Rockies

Having managed to unexpectedly scoop up some birds in the fading light on the day of my arrival, this meant I could bring forward my next stop. It also meant I could spend more time birding by driving there in the dark. As you may know I plan my trips quite carefully, with each day divided into four segments - morning, midday, afternoon and evening - and against each of these I then have one or several locations that I plan to visit. Separately I have a list of species I hope to see at each location, and together these form "The Plan". Of course what nearly always happens is that I spend too long looking for something somewhere early on in the day and the afternoon then comes under pressure. I then either spend too little time at earmarked locations or end up missing them out altogether. The secret is to build in some redundancy such that by the time I am several days into a trip I don't need to visit some of the places I'd researched as I've already seen the birds at prior stops. The plan is also always subject to change - generally I use historical eBird information to work out what to do, and of course sometimes that does not work out. For instance this year the weather was so mild and sunny that none of the higher altitude species like the Rosy-finches had yet descended to urban feeders, so those planned spots got dumped, and instead I looked at more recent information on eBird to rework the plan on the fly. And of course if one location is particularly good it may simply merit more time; equally it is not unknown to arrive somewhere and within ten minutes realise it is simply not birdy at all and move on. Flexibility is key.

Page 1 of The Plan. The diagram bottom right is of my car's wheels - I had a lot of fun somewhere in South Dakota trying to work out exactly which tyre was losing air - it turned out the sensors were configured incorrectly, the front right wheel sensor was attached to the rear left wheel and so on....I got there in the end, but not before over-inflating the wrong one, and then in trying to correct it deflating yet another one!

I stopped the car at about 6,500ft just before sunrise and took in the magnificent spectacle as it gradually lit up both the landscape below me and the snowy crags above. It was one of those moments where photographs are next to useless at conveying what your eyes are seeing and your brain is thinking; my camera stayed on the seat. I was headed to a site called "The Goshawk", a private residence but where birders are welcome to view the feeders. It took a while to home in on exactly the right house, but it was soon obvious - adorned with feeders, and with a constant stream of visitors. I heard the Clark's Nutcrackers before I saw them, the call quite similar in intonation to the Spotted Nutcracker in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Brilliant birds, and there were several dashing in to take whole peanuts and then stash them nearby. Joining them in this task were large numbers of Steller's Jays, and Cassin's Finches and Mountain Chickadees fed on the smaller offerings. I gave it a while in the hope that some rare Woodpeckers would appear, but only Downy and Hairy Woodpecker ever visited. And as for Rosy-finches... 

Clark's Nutcracker

Steller's Jay

Cassin's Finch

Mountain Chickadee

Downy Woodpecker

Driving back down the mountain I stopped to scope a bird peched atop a thin tree. It was a Townsend's Solitaire, another trip target albeit one I expected at lower elevations. Still, a welcome surprise and one that took the pressure off. Of course I saw loads throughout the trip, some even singing, but at this particular juncture it felt like a big deal and I was very pleased. Superb underwing pattern!

Townsend's Solitaire

My next stop was Red Rocks Park, back down towards Denver. This has some spectacular rock formations that were indeed very red. More importantly than that it had several Woodhouse's Scrub Jays, another bird on the The Plan. Also my first Black-billed Magpies of the trip, another Townsend's Solitaire, and a good selection of smaller birds like Dark-eyed Junco, Spotted TowheeSong Sparrow and House Finch.

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay

Spotted Towhee

The morning had gone quite well and I was not sure what to do next. Most of my intended stops had not seen anywhere near like the species diversity as in prior years, so I deviated from my route and headed south to the Denver Botanic Garden where an out-of-range Mexican Duck had been hanging out. This was a doddle and the new habitat added Ring-necked Duck, Pied-billed Grebe and Red-winged Blackbirds as well. 

Mexican Duck

Red-winged Blackbird

I now started to work on the trip list in earnest by stopping off at a number of large water bodies between Denver and Boulder. A number of ABA ticks were possible albeit difficult - various migratory wildfowl such as Black Scoter and Bewick's Swan. There are a surprising number of reservoirs in the area, most of them vast, but I can recommend the ones I visited as having good viewing opportunities - a scope is an absolute must though. The first was Standley Park Lake, and here I added Hooded Merganser, loads of Pied-billed Grebes, good numbers of Western Grebe, Goldeneye and the omnipresent Cackling Goose. As I was walking back up to the car a fast-flying and quite chunky Falcon caught my eye and by jogging up the slop a bit I was able to track it as it flew a long way west and eventually landed in a distant tree. Scope  up, and as expected it was a Prairie Falcon, a bird I had spent ages looking for in Arizona a few years ago without success. The day was going really well! I can also recommend the Boulder Reservoir complex just a short distance away, and this had over 300 Goosanders swimming and diving in formation, as well as a Slavonian Grebe and a Red-necked Grebe with a small flock of Westerns. I finished the day (the light is unbirdable shortly after 4pm at this time of year) at Lagerman Reservoir where I couldn't find the Black Scoter (although irritatingly I later found out it was there!), but did see loads of Buffleheads, Ruddy Ducks, and Black-necked Grebes as well as my first Northern Harrier and quite a few Killdeer. It had been a good day, and I had acclimatised well to both the new time zone as well as the altitude. Denver is a mile high - 5,250 feet - and I had been a lot higher than that in the morning, to 10,300 feet, and had been a little worried I would feel it, but if I did it was not enough to make me feel sick or anything like that.


  1. It's almost like this is my western bird trip also...SO enjoying seeing all your great finds...and great photos...And your prep list is awesome...I wish to be this organized, Im the type who has little notes stuck in my pockets that get lost at the last minute. I have yet to see the Rosy Finches and I've tried on numerous trips...hope for future I guess. TC

    1. Prepping is at least 50% of the fun in my opinion. Then living the plan (or not!) is the other 50%, but more satisfying for having done the hard yards before leaving.

  2. And this is meant to be a holiday? Sounds hard work. But fabulous photos