3500 Mile Adventure – San Luis Valley, Colorado

May 19, 20 and 21, 2021 – We headed south and west to Alamosa, Colorado, to see the Great Sand Dunes National Park and nearby wildlife refuges. May is still very chilly in the high country; highs were in the 60’s and lows in the 40’s.

The Great Sand Dunes are an almost magical natural phenomenon, an accident of broad sandy flatlands along an ancient river bottom, and a natural wind tunnel between some of the tallest mountains along the spine of North America. This map shows the broad San Luis Valley, hemmed in by the La Garita, San Juan, and Sangre De Cristo mountain ranges. For reference, Great Sand Dunes National Park is about 25 miles north-to-south (sorry I left the scale of miles out of the screenshot).

Screenshot of map from City of Alamosa website. See link for entire map, including legend
Mule Deer doe, giving me the very definition of “doe-eyed”
1/400 sec. f/9 ISO 700
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Almost as soon as we arrived at Great Sand Dunes, we saw Mule Deer, up close. I felt like this doe could reach out and put her muzzle on my lens, she was so close (well, you know she was at least 9 feet away, my minimum focusing distance). She was one of a group of 4 or 5 animals picking their way through the campground, oblivious to the tourists, sniffing at the cold charcoal grills to find salt.

Perfect weather January 2018, at Great Sand Dunes National Park
1/160 sec. f9 ISO 100
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, 55mm

This is what we were hoping to see. This photo is from our trip in January 2018, and was taken with my old Canon rig. It shows the Sangre de Christo mountain range to the north that helps encircle the dunes, the expanse of the 750-foot-high dunes, and the river that runs at the foot of the dunes, providing habitat, we hoped, for birds.

Sand dunes in the making, May 2021
1/2500 sec. f/9 ISO 2000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

But the weather had other ideas. A cold wind was blowing about 25 mph and increasing, burnishing our ankles with sand. Black clouds were boiling up over the mountain range to the northeast (which includes five “Fourteeners”, mountains over 14,000 feet or 4260 meters in elevation, still covered in snow) and southeast (including another four Forteeners). It started raining, spitting icy cold drops, and then the rain turned to hail. We decided to go check out the local Mexican food in Alamosa, and plan our route for the following day 😊

The Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge are both located in the San Luis Valley within 20 miles of the sand dunes, and the weather for the next day proved to be sparkling, still and cool.

Male Violet-green Swallow, dashing across narrow pond
1/2500 sec. f/9 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

My brother agreed to be my spotter while hubby and sister-in-law attempted to bicycle the gravel walking paths. And right off the bat he called out What is that green bird? I couldn’t see the color until I downloaded the photos that night, but sure enough, he had spotted a Violet-green Swallow, one of the loveliest swallows, with its green back and shoulders, and a violet patch at the base of its tail.

Mated male and female Mallards in synchronized flight
1/2500 sec. f/13 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

A pair of Mallards rose from the water in perfect unison. The signature green head of the male is not visible in this photo due to the angle of the sun. And their yellow bills are only barely visible because they’re in shadow against the sky. Ok, it’s a poor photo for identification, but I still like it for composition (and who is not charmed by his characteristic curled tail feathers?).

Male Northern Shoveler in flight
1/2000 sec. f/13 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

From the shape of the bill, I can say this is a Northern Shoveler. But the single in-flight photo on All About Birds shows a green head and green secondaries (with the color sadly and badly enhanced), while this bird has a purple head and blue-green secondaries. Butler’s Birds shows a Shoveler with purple iridescent head, so I assume purple is within the range of potential iridescent colors (depending upon the sun’s angle) of these birds. The whole truck-full of us got in on this one. The male and female Shoveler were swimming side-by-side, and then took off with great splashing. Everyone was shouting and cheering, because in-flight shots seemed to be guaranteed, the lift-off was so close to the roadside. Alas, camera shake ate my photos… all except for this one.

Proud male Yellow-headed Blackbird
1/2500 sec. f/13 ISO 1600
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The reeds beside the shallow water were full of Red-winged Blackbirds and these Yellow-headed Blackbirds. In the photo above, he looks all poised and calm… but just wait.

Male Yellow-headed Blackbird singing for a mate
1/2500 sec. f/13 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

They puff up their chest and sing, declaring territory and advertising for mates. They use a lot of body motion, tipping their heads far to each side of their body as they throw their song.

Yellow-headed Blackbird doing opera
1/2500 sec. f/13 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

They puff out the feathers on the sides of their body, and they hold their wings out as if pretending to be airplanes, making themselves look as big and powerful as a Robin-sized bird possibly can.

Wagnerian opera!
1/2500 sec. f/13 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This little guy is making it clear he is NOT to be messed with (and he is a good provider).

Male Red-tailed Hawk in dead tree
1/2000 sec. f/13 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Walking down the road, we spotted this Red-tailed Hawk in a little stand of dead trees. He stared balefully at us, and then screeched long and loud.

Female Red-tailed Hawk answering her mate’s call
1/2000 sec. f/13 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

She screeched back! The female was just a few trees further from the road. All About Birds notes that the call of the Red-tailed Hawk is considered the quintessential hawk/eagle cry, and says that when movie-makers need a cry for any raptor in a soundtrack, they usually use the cry of the Red-tailed Hawk.

Female Red-tailed Hawk keeping her eye on us
1/2000 sec. f/13 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The female flew toward us, then landed. She kept calling to her mate, and the angle of her head made it clear she was keeping her eye on me as my camera clicked away.

Male Red-tailed Hawk trying to chase us away
1/2000 sec. f/13 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The male then flew over in two big sweeps, slowing to make sure I saw him coming and would be intimidated. He passed so close he didn’t fit in my viewfinder, and was obscured by the leaves of the tree directly above me. When they come that close, you can see every shift of their tail and how they use it to stabilize their smooth powerful controlled flight. This encounter was exciting because the birds were a mated pair, and were so close. They clearly delivered their message: get back in your truck and leave! So, we did.

San Luis Valley, looking northwest from Alamosa NWR overlook
Samsung Galaxy S10e phone photo

The Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge includes a driving trail that eventually climbs up a bluff to an overlook parking area, near the intersection of Rd S 116 and Rd S 13.7, shown on the map. Yep, Colorado has some decimal-point road names. This phone photo was taken looking northwest off the edge of the bluff over the Rio Grande River and the flat valley of oxbows it has created and abandoned over the eons, toward San Luis Peak (another Fourteener).

Screenshot Google Maps satellite view
Alamosa NWR overlook
Swainson’s Hawk hunting above the bluff in San Luis Valley
1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This Swainson’s Hawk (light morph) soared up and down the length of the bluff, sometimes so far away as to be nearly out of sight, and sometimes drifting sideways to come almost directly overhead. The uplift blowing up the face of the bluff allowed him to sail without flapping his wings for minutes at a time. He consistently stared into the western sun (so my camera did, as well), perhaps to utilize the shadows cast by prey to improve his spotting at such a distance. I love the way his leg feathers neatly cover his feet, for silent flight.

Though we had been disappointed to find many of the walking and driving trails in the refuges of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex closed during our visit, we were able to do a lot of “rolling bird blind” bird watching from the car, and saw an amazing amount of wildlife. The trails are closed until September to preserve habitat for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. We were very happy with the new birds we saw, with our hawk encounter, and with the far-reaching landscapes spreading out over space and time.

6 thoughts on “3500 Mile Adventure – San Luis Valley, Colorado”

  1. Nice summary of the bird haul – good to see the Yellow-Heads – for some reason they are pretty scarce this year in the standard areas we usually see them. Like the Red-Winged they definitely have the same temper (interesting fact, if you have medical staples in your head they are attracted to the shine and will attack you – don’t ask how I know this ha). Shovelers are an interesting bunch on the color schemes – some of the one offs are due to “mingling” with Mallards which dilutes some of their brighter colors – as you noted, the bill is usually a giveaway. Enjoyed the post, cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting about the staples – I know Steller’s Jay will pick up anything shiny, didn’t know it extended to these Yellows. Have to watch for that! Thanks for the comments, always good to have you along!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m tickled to see how much water that creek at the dunes holds in spring. I’ve only seen it in summer and fall, when it is just a trickle on the sand creekbed, 1 to 3 inches deep and 1 to 3 fcreek bed,
    The Swainson’s hawk is more colorful than I realized, from observing by eye. But I’m especially intrigued by the yellow headed blackbird. What a character!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, those Yellows are characters, full of energy, not to be ignored. The creek at the foot of the dunes had a lot of water in January 2018 (and some ice). This year in May, it still had significant width – maybe a 100 feet – but, as you observed, only a couple of inches of depth.


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