While doing a “hawk watch” along the Colorado River on December’s trip I had the opportunity to watch another group of corvids harassing a larger bird. In this case it was a group of Black-billed Magpie mobbing a Red-tailed Hawk.
Before I relate the story it seems I keep running into this kind of action. Back in February I posted the story about a Great Horned Owl being mobbed by a flock of American Crows at Johnson County Park. And in early January I saw a group of Blue Jays harassing and chasing a Red-Shoulder Hawk in Geist Reservoir in Marion County.
Now I haven’t been out in the field much lately. So am I just stumbling upon corvids acting like this or does it happen more than I know? I really can’t answer the question but it appears to happen frequently.
Colorado Black-billed Magpie Mobbing
While scanning for raptors along the Colorado River north of Grand Junction I noticed one, then two, then several Black-billed Magpies flying to a distant tree line. Now this seemed odd since I had only seen and heard one or two in the previous hour. In fact I had noted earlier in the trip I heard many more magpies than I saw. Which struck me as acting like a Blue Jay. Not wanting to be seen unless the need arose.
It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. The magpies were gathering in one tree. Which meant there was something present they could harass.
Eventually the dark morph Red-tailed Hawk I had seen earlier appeared and the two flew off together. And the magpies must have lost interest since they did not pursue.
This started out like the post on winter Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Wood Ducks in Western Colorado. That post highlighted the fact I had overlooked the possibility of seeing either species on my trip. So, along those same lines I was going to discuss four subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco which are possible in Western Colorado. That will still be the theme. But I’ll also share some thoughts after researching the Dark-eyed Junco frustrating subspecies.
I knew Dark-eyed Juncos were possible in Western Colorado since they had a .06 possibility. I expected to see the usual Slate-colored subspecies until seeing a “different” junco at Connected Lakes State Park.
Once I realized it was a different subspecies I started taking as many photos of juncos as possible. I finally got around to reviewing them last week.
Using Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Western NA – pg. 424-426 I found there are 6 subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos. The first four listed below are possible in the Grand Junction area in winter.
Slate-colored – All NA – Indiana’s
Oregon – Western NA
Pink-Sided – Central NA
Gray-headed – Great Basin
Red-backed – AZ and NM
White-winged – small strip of area from Montana to CO
Slate-colored – No
The nominate subspecies in most of the US is the Slate-colored. It is the one we know in the Midwest – dark gray above and white below. The female is a more gray-brown above. And looking through my photos I didn’t see one on the trip.
Oregon – Yes
What finally made it dawn on me that I wasn’t seeing the usual Slated-Colored was the different colored juncos at Connected Lake State Park. The junco had hoods.
Pink-sided – Probably Not
Gray-headed – No
Since I don’t have a photo I took this off the internet.
Now for an Indiana Bonus
While searching for a photo of the nominate Slate-Colored Junco I came across the following photo.
This post exemplifies why I got into blogging and birding. It “forces” you to look closer and do more research on a topic you might otherwise blow over. And eventually the frustrating part turns into knowledge. This will make my future encounters with any subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco very rewarding.
Luckily for once extra time at work coincides with the winter Birding Doldrums. I did get out for a few hours last weekend but not much was happening except there are now four Red-tailed Hawks in the neighborhood. So I’ll continue with my December Colorado trip discussing Day 4’s afternoon with the highlight being a female Northern Harrier.
After birding Connected Lakes State Park all morning, the goal was to drive the short distance to Walker State Wildlife Area and scan for Raptors. Probably not the ideal location to scan but I didn’t feel like driving. And there werer eBird reports of raptors flying along the nearby Colorado River.
I never did see what made the waterfowl fly. But a few minutes later I got a glimpse of a distant bird flying up river. The bird was large and dark. Even at that distance it didn’t have the feel of a Bald Eagle. The wings weren’t “planky” enough. The elusive Golden Eagle?
Prior to heading to Grand Junction last December I checked the status and distribution of species. As I explained in my 6% rule post, eBird bar charts come in handy for getting a feel for likely species. The post points out I’ve found the odds drop quickly for species with a number under .06. Ruby-crowned Kinglet distribution in Western Colorado came in at .04 and Wood Duck .03. Without actual chasing I probably wouldn’t see them. So I made a mental note they might be there and moved on to learn species with higher numbers.
Boy was I surprised when I saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets at not one but four locations with seven seen at Connected Lake State Park. I didn’t think Ruby-crowned Kinglets are hardy enough to spend winter in Colorado. I based that fact on Midwesterners only having a slight chance of seeing one locally in winter. And since we basically see them only during migration I thought they migrated farther south.
The same can be said of the Wood Duck. In the Midwest they are usually gone by late November and start reappearing in early spring. I didn’t think they were on the same level as the Blue-winged Teal for early/late migration but earlier than most ducks. So when I encountered Wood Ducks at Connected Lakes that also caught me off guard.
So what gives?
Range maps provided surprising answers for each species.
Both winter just south of the Midwest and are year around residents in Western Colorado, something I hadn’t previously noticed. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet distribution shows it’s a year-round resident of the whole Great Basin. And the small circle in Western Colorado is where Wood Ducks are year-round residents.
These encounters once again prove I need to spend more time studying local birds beyond our area. What else I’m I missing about these species?
The plan was to wrap up the December Colorado trip with one more blog. But after reviewing the photos from the final days I came up with several more posts. A couple travelogue type posts and a couple about things that caught my interest. Day 3’s morning was an enjoyable one in the field with a long walk at a state park. Strictly a travelogue day which means not any one highlight but many good views and observations. I’ll go with a Northern Flicker drumming to show my improving video talent. Ha!
There were numerous Dark-eyed Juncos but they too are getting a separate blog.
Now the following isn’t a good video. I was playing around with the video and thought I had a focused video of a Northern Flicker drumming. Turns out there was a small branch in the way. But I had fun in the field watching and recording.
Turn up the volume to catch the Northern Flicker Drumming.
I wrapped up the morning’s walk with a good mix of species – waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds. I encountered three separate Bewick’s Wrens but like any wren they didn’t come out long enough for a photo.
Since I don’t know if I’ll ever get done posting about December’s Colorado trip I’m going to jump to the final day. The day would consist of driving from Grand Junction to Denver for a late afternoon flight back to Indianapolis with a little birding. Since there had been snow in the mountains overnight I cut my birding plans from two locations to one. And that’s where I had the surprise of an American Dipper.
The story starts the previous night with heavy snow being predicted in the mountains. In Colorado you can be ticketed for not having snow tires when conditions are warranted. After a call to the car rental agency and looking at the tires with a flashlight, I concluded yes, the tires where the minimum required. Never mind there wasn’t much tread, they met the requirement.
Upon awaking I checked the road conditions and saw speeds over Vail Pass in the 20-30mph range. Which meant it was going to be a long drive. So I decided on one stop at Veltus Park in Glenwood Springs to check for Lewis Woodpecker.
The drive to Glenwood Springs was basically uneventful. I had been there on my previous trip when I think I heard and briefly saw a Lewis Woodpecker. But not long enough to be certain. Since it’s a small park and with the weather I gave myself 30 minutes to loop through the park to find the woodpecker. The listening was hampered by the fact the Roaring Fork River runs alongside the park and didn’t show any sign of the recent drought.
After 35 minutes and looping the park twice I had only seen a few chickadees and magpies. And it was cold with 4 inches of snow on the ground. To the NW I could see a large band of snow coming my way. Time to get moving.
I started heading along the river back to the car when I heard a tick-tick-tick coming from the river and immediately knew the sound from listening to recordings.
An American Dipper!
Even though the habitat was perfect I didn’t even have the bird on my radar. It took a second to spot two chasing each other around the river. Eventually I lost sight of one but the other stuck around. Luckily the park’s path ran along the river allowing good looks and even photos.
The American Dipper Video
I know there are numerous videos of American dippers but I’ll still share mine. The following is a portion of a longer video I took. I initially found the dipper, had it in view, and as you can see lost it. I found it again but didn’t even know it. I’m glad I heard them calling or I would never have thought to look on the river.
After a half hour of watching I thought I had better get moving. I was frozen and the sky to the NW was black with a heavy snow. I would like to say the drive back to Denver was uneventful but that would be a lie. Driving in a snowstorm on the flat prairies is one thing, but in the mountains with semi-trucks is another. A story for another day…
The real reason for the December trip to the Grand Junction area of Colorado was to check out my June BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) routes. As I have previously posted the BBS routes are the main source to determine bird distribution in the U.S. and is one of the main factors if a bird is on or off an endangered list.
Besides the two BBS routes I run in Indiana I will now run two in western Colorado north of Grand Junction. Before I volunteered I wanted to make sure the area habitat was not strictly scrub. From the previous surveys I was sure they weren’t but I wanted to confirm. Thus the real reason for the trip.
I ended up at Highline Lake SP around noon and headed to the nearby starting point of the nearer Douglas Pass route. I wasn’t going to bird the route as much travel it to get a general feel of the landscape.
The route was what I hoped it would be – scrub to creek side to mountain. I don’t think I’ll have any problem seeing/hearing the norm of 60+ species for this count.
After my last post on birders trying to turn Common Goldeneye to Barrow’s Goldeneye, you thought I would have learned. Nope. My first day in the Grand Junction area was spent wasting too much time trying to turn a Western Grebe into a Clark’s Grebe.
The day started out exactly like I hoped. Clear and cold (17F). I was at Highline Lake State Park in under a half hour. It was as quiet as birding in winter in Midwest. The difference though was no backdrop noise of cars or machinery like you hear in the Midwest.
I was one of the few people at the park besides the rangers. And the birding was slow but I didn’t mind as I walked the trails for a few hours.
I have seen numerous Common Goldeneye over the years but never a Barrow’s Goldeneye. During my first year of birding one of my three life chases was for a female Barrow’s Goldeneye. She was hanging with a group of female Common Goldeneye on the Illinois River at Peoria. I easily found the Goldeneyes and spent an hour in the freezing weather but never could turn one of the Common’s into a Barrow.
There had been discussion on the Illinois listserv if one was a Barrow’s or not with the prevailing wisdom the bill was yellow enough for a Barrow’s. I have since seen this argument numerous times as people try to turn a Common into a Barrow’s. Especially in Illinois where a Barrow’s does occasionally turn up in a flock of Common.
Well let me say after spending a couple of minutes at the Silverthorne Sewage Ponds there isn’t an argument on Goldeneye differences.
Colorado County Birding states the Silverthorne Sewage Ponds are a reliable spot to see Barrow’s Goldeneye in the winter. Since it is only two miles off I-70 I thought I’d stop and see for myself if there is a case for arguing about the species.
It was cold, windy, and snowing in the mountains when I stopped. Luckily the ponds are right on the main drag since I wanted to keep moving and get back down to lower altitude.
Immediately upon exiting the car I saw a group of Barrow’s and immediately recognized them. Not even close to the markings on a Common Goldeneye. I know I was close but the difference was easily apparent. The crescent on the male Barrow’s looks nothing like the round spot on the Common. And the all yellow bill of female didn’t hint at the Common’s mostly black bill.
Then off to Grand Junction to start the real trip.
Going forward on Colorado trips I plan to take different routes to Grand Junction and bird different areas. Since this was a winter trip I decided to stick close to I-70. I had picked out 3 spots within a couple of miles of the interstate which would give the best chance of seeing species I probably wouldn’t encounter in the Grand Junction area. And since the goal of the trip was to prepare for June’s BBS routes I wanted to hear Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees, species I will encounter in June.
The first stop was Genesee Mountain Park about 20 miles west of Denver. With the chance of snow at higher elevations this was the only high elevation site I planned to bird on the trip. Plus, it is very convenient with the entrance right off the exit ramp.
Upon arriving I was flagged down by Forest Service Workers which didn’t bode well. But all they wanted to know was if I was going to cut my own Christmas Tree. Seems they keep the tree population in check by letting people cut their own trees. I headed to the back of the park to avoid the crowd which meant I had to negotiate through vehicles, adults, kids, and dogs along the narrow park road. And of course it was in a light snow.
Upon reaching the end of the road my fears of mass people were unfounded as there was only a couple walking their dog. So I expected I would be able to hear the birds. I proceeded up the trail towards the 8300′ peak and it was Quiet.
Unlike the noise at the airport road it was just me and my thoughts. And the wind blowing through the trees.
It goes on like this for a half hour of walking.
No peeps, chips, or even a Common Raven flying over. Quiet. Knowing I still have over three hours to Grand Junction I decide it’s a bust and take another trial back to the car.
About 10 minutes from the car, which meant about 45 minutes total walking, I finally hear a peep. It is distant in the trees. Should I go on or track it down? I decide to track it down and see birds darting in the tops of the Pine Trees.
Finally Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees. The species I was hoping to see. It’s an active flock and I follow them from tree to tree hoping for a good look and/or photo. I get looks but never a decent photo.
With the impending drive I head back to the car where I get one and only one photo of a chickadee.
On the drive back to the interstate I see a couple more birds and end up with 6 species on the list. At least they were the species I wanted to see. What else should I have expected at elevation on a cold winter’s day?