Sunday, November 16, 2008

Birding at Pueblo, Colorado

On Saturday I went birding with Polly, a neighbor of mine, and the Colorado Field Ornithologists group out of Denver, led by Brandon Percival of Pueblo. I’d do more of this, if only such hikes were just the sixty miles or so we drove (one way). We hit a familiar spot, Pueblo State Park and spent most of the day wandering around Lake Pueblo (Colorado's largest body of water), the nearby Valco Ponds and Pueblo’s City Park. I got to visit with some neat folks I’ve met on previous outings, as well as some new folks, of course. Polly is a quilter, and I found it lots of fun that she ran into another quilter and ‘talked shop’, not birds, through lunch. Neat!

The day started off a bit chilly, someone said 16 degrees, but soon it was a typical fall day in any Colorado park; green grass covered inches-thick with leaves from dozens of deciduous trees, blue skies and warm temperatures, in the seventies by afternoon.
Perhaps most folks were tickled to find the ‘promised’ Red-throated Loon, Gavia stellata, that Brandon had found there the previous weekend. Personally, all I saw was a duck-shaped blob on the lake; as it was at least a couple miles away. Those who know loons however, noted its small size (for a loon) and its short, somewhat up-turned bill. Right… Of course, this being winter-plumage time, the bird didn’t even have a red throat; but they were thrilled, non the less, and excited to add the unusual bird (for Colorado) to their life lists. Polly, having more experience birding than myself, with Loons in particular, watched it long enough to feel comfortable adding it to her list…but for me: it could have been a Penguin. Sheeshhhhhhhh

My favorite life-bird of the day (as a new birder, I have lots of these) was the Canyon Towhee, Pipilo fuscus, which we spotted in the parking lot. I had some nuts in my pocket, and broke a few up to toss towards them; one came immediately and scarffed ‘em up. There were several, hopping and searching for bugs under the low walkway to the pier; delightful to watch. They looked a lot like plump, long tailed, earthy-brown robins with rufus crowns. Usually somewhat skulky, these few were almost gregarious. I couldn't find a decent photo to post here (free), as the ones I saw had a lovely, wide rufus crown-patch that was really quite stunning.

We also spotted another new bird for me, the American Tree Sparrow, Spizella arborea, a medium-sized sparrow foraging in the low brush. Those who know it were alerted by its melodious call. Adults have a narow, rusty cap and grey underparts with a small dark spot on the breast. They have a rusty back with lighter stripes, brown wings with white bars and a slim tail. Their face is grey with a rusty line through the eye and their flanks are splashed with light brown. They are similar in appearance to the Chipping Sparrow.

This bird's song is a sweet, high warble descending in pitch and becoming buzzy near the finish. Polly insisted they were giving us ‘the raspberry’…which is exactly what it sounded like! I’ll never forget that.

We found a favorite bird of mine and got to watch it for some time: the Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans. It had positioned itself on a naked branch along the river from which it regularly salied, hawking insects; only to return to the same spot over and over again. Nice bird!

The Black Phoebe is North America’s only small, black-and white flycatcher. In many areas, natural nest sites; such as sheltered rock faces, streamside boulders, and hollow cavities in trees, have largely given way to artificial nest sites provided by human-made structures. Such artificial sites have greatly increased breeding densities of this species in habitats where the lack of suitable nest sites once limited breeding. So if you think offering bird houses is silly; think again …especially if you have a pond or live near water.

Black Phoebes are monogamous and frequently raise 2 broods of young during a breeding season. Their adherent nests are composed of a mud shell lined with plant fibers, typically placed over water and plastered to a vertical wall within a few centimeters of a protective ceiling.

For such a small bird, I find it astounding that individuals are known to snatch small minnows from just below the water’s surface. Rarely, they also eat small berries. In this time of interest in combating mosquitoes without poison…flycatchers, like bats, are extreamly important. I'm pleased to say I believe I've seen one in my yard.

Over at the city park, Brandon found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula, a very small songbird. Both the male and female have olive-grey plumage with a thin, black bill and short tail and stocky little, round bodies. The male bears a red crown which gives the bird its common name. They have white wing bars and a white broken eye ring. The adult male has a red patch on his crown which you will only see if he is agitated.

These birds forage actively in trees or shrubs, mainly eating small insects and spiders and their eggs, some berries and tree sap. During breeding season they feed same as in winter except no vegetable matter eaten. They may hover over a branch while feeding and sometimes fly out to catch insects in flight; hawking like a flycatcher.

This Kinglet, one of North America’s smallest songbirds, has a loud, complex song and, with up to 12 eggs, lays the largest clutch of any North American passerine for its size. Males and females are nearly identical in plumage…except for that red (rarely yellow or orange) crown-patch.

They are in constant motion…regularly flicking their wings like some sort of hyperactive youngster. These kinglets prefer to stay low, flitting in and out of deciduous thickets and trees where it especially likes the outer branches.

We also saw dozens of Robins and a couple Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Sphyrapicus varius, which apparently winter there at the park. Brandon had found a youngster for us earlier this year, near Westcliff, but the female we saw this day was a delight.

Widely known in North American folklore for its amusing name, this woodpecker creates shallow holes (sap wells) in the bark of trees and feeds on sap that flows into them. Like other sapsuckers, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker creates elaborate systems of such sap wells and maintains them daily to ensure sap production, defending the wells from other birds, including other sapsuckers. When feeding young, sapsuckers usually forage for arthropods, especially ants, but some of these prey items are dipped in sap wells, perhaps for added nutritional value.

Its habit of making shallow holes in trees to get sap is exploited by other bird species; especially the Ruby-throated Hummingbird which appears to be closely allied with sapsuckers. This sapsucker can be considered a "keystone" species, one whose existence is vital for the maintenance of a whole community.

At the Duck Pond at Pueblo’s City Park, we saw the most incredible Wood Ducks. I’d seen them before, but not so up-close and personal. Red eyes, green, white-lined heads with purple crowns, purple/mahogany chests and rear parts…chest spotted in white and sides, also lined in white, are golden. Males look an awful lot alike a paint-by-number bird…painted by someone under the influence of drugs. The brownish to gray female Wood Duck is distinguished by a pronounced white patch around the eye, white throat, and gray crest.

The Wood Duck, Aix sponsa, is a common bird of riparian habitats, wooded swamps, and freshwater marshes. It is also the most successful of the seven species of North American ducks that regularly nest in natural cavities. This species’ body and eyes appear well adapted to the wooded habitat it favors: its slim body allows use of Pileated Woodpecker cavities for nesting

In the duck pond, I had my first look at American Wigeons, Anas americana, commonly known as the “Baldpate,” is one of the most northerly dabbling ducks, breeding from the Bering Sea to Hudson Bay and from the tundra edge south to the southern prairies. They do look sort of ‘bald’ with that wide, light golden-white crown-stripe from bill to back of the head. This is a common and increasingly abundant duck that sounds like a exactly like a squeaky-toy when it whistles.

Mixed in with other ducks were some huge, wild-looking, fluffy-butted geese with gray necks and long waddles on the inside of their necks from under the bill, several inches down their necks.

We also saw Canada Geese and their recently split cousins Cackling Geese which look much the same but are considerably smaller. [BosqueBill has written a wonderful new piece regarding Cackling Geese here]

One lone Snow Goose, totally dwarfed by the exotic escapees, was also on the little lake.


Photos from Wikipedia


Debbie said...

Sounds like you had a great day. I'm heading down to the Denver area for a couple of days. Will have free time on Wednesday so I was kind of thinking that I might go to Cherry Creek state park with my binocs to see if I could spot anything.

My excitement the past few days was American Goldfinches at my feeder. While others may see them regularly, they are rare in Summit County. In fact, an older checklist I had been using didn't even list them for Summit County. So it's easy to understand why people get hooked on birdwatching!

Beverly said...

Yup, I'm certainly hooked. I didn't even mention the several Belted Kingfishers or Northern Shrikes (one of my favs) that we saw...I'd imagine the total number of species was close to 40-50...including Sharp Shinned and Red-tailed Hawks that posed so nicely! I'll ask Brandon if there is a list somewhere and add it to the post.

Bosque Bill said...

Beverly, thanks for bringing us along on your trip via your posting.

I saw a Black Phoebe and RCK in the bosque yesterday. I think the phoebe is about the only fly-catcher still around this far into the season. I'm always amazed at the size of the kinglet's eyes compared to its body.

Like you, I don't add to my list a tiny blob that other birders tell me is an exciting, rare Whatsis bird.

I noticed a crab apple tree in my yard has literally hundreds of sapsucker wells, but they must be quite old, as I've never seen the bird or any running sap.

Beverly said...

Hiya Bill!

Yeah well, there was quite a bit of discussion about that 'blob' (which was all I could discern). The folks who know could tell when it turned that it's bill was quite short and that it was small, compared to other birds on the water. I'm sure it was more than a blob to them! There were about seven or eight excellent scopes set up, too...most of the folks had far more experience than I do.

I have been considering adding some tiny-fruiting crab apples; where the fruit is about the size of cherries. A couple of old cherry trees came with my house and the birds just love 'em. However, when I noted a lovely little tree in the park full of tiny little apples...someone said they're great trees if ya don't mind the mess. She also pointed out if birds liked them so much...why was the tree full of the tiny little apples?

Hummmmmmmm Good Point. Perhaps I'll stick to more cherry trees; unless someone knows of an apple tree that the birds DO like.

The thing that amazes me is that that little, bitty kinglet's girlfriend lays a dozen eggs! OMG
Can you imagine all those youngsters? Sheeshhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Bosque Bill said...

I haven't found the crab apples to be a big draw for the birds. I think my mom planted them for their attractive blossoms and foliage. The birds do like my 'real' apple trees, but talk about a mess under the trees!

RuthieJ said...

Hi Beverly,
Wow, you saw lots of good birds in one day--and had some fun too! I had a closer encounter with a Northern Shrike while dressed in camo and out bowhunting yesterday morning. They're rare here and I was thrilled to see one land that close to me.

Please give those little crabapples you're thinking about planting a second look. I have several of them planted in my yard and birds love them (cedar waxwings, robins, house finches, even woodpeckers). Generally they're more appealing to the birds after a few freeze/thaw cycles--the fruit is much easier for them to eat after it's been frozen and gotten mushy. It's a good winter food source for them in the winter when natural foods become more scarce or covered with snow. They are a little bit messy, but if you can plant them away from walkways or other places you don't want mushy fruit underfoot, it won't be as bad.

Beverly said...

Ya know, when I moved into this house, there were six or seven very old apple trees. One right outside the back door, another next to the garage and another dominated the middle of the yard. It had been pruned badly…somebody tried to make a shade tree out of it; or perhaps a lolly-pop, I dunno.

Suffice it to say, Bill, I have only 3-4 old apple trees now. None of the apples were good; mealy, nasty things with no flavor. Only the squirrels ate them…and then just a couple bites and they’d toss ‘em to the ground. Every fall I had to pick up as many as six or seven garbage-cans half-full of apples (couldn’t lift ‘em full) and do this for three or four weekends running. I had to wear heavy gloves cuz the things were seriously mushy and the wasps LOVED them. I’d often pick up the nasty things only to find half a dozen wasps feeding on the underside. Ugg! The ones left don’t fruit much.

Yeah, I know apple trees can be a mess…and that is exactly what I do NOT want. I saw these two sets of photos by Lillian Stokes:

and fell in love with the tiny little apples; smaller than cherries! Look at that second shot; a robin is swallowing them whole. The apples I saw Saturday were about twice as big as something a robin could swallow, but still very small.

Unfortunately, probably a messy tree, huh? But I wrote to Ms. Stokes and got the names of a few tiny little apple-fruit trees. I think I’ll give one or two a try…and plant them far back, away from the house. And a couple more cherry trees, and some viburnum, and some fruiting shrubs and some honeysuckle and some… [sigh]

Yeah, I love the shrikes, too, ruthie. Did you see my post on them:

(awesome birds.)