3500 Mile Adventure – Lathrop State Park

May 12 and 13, 2021 – Well, we are back at home after traveling over 3500 miles in our trusty Toyota pickup, visiting family and doing some birding. We got to visit with almost everyone we had hoped to see. We saw many encouraging signs of economic recovery, and developed a new regard for the resilience of our country. And, boy, did we see birds!

Our trip took us north from Houston to Denver, then into Nebraska, then a little foray into Oklahoma before returning home. There is a lot to share, so I will have 5 different posts for you.

Before even reaching Denver, we spent a night to see Lathrop State Park, just west of Walsenburg, Colorado, in the dry flat land at the foot of the Spanish Peaks. We found a delightful park, with a broad paved walking and cycling trail surrounding the first lake, and a gravel road and horseback riding trail surrounding the second. The weather was clear, chilly and dry, and the peaks were dusted with snow which had fallen the day before.

Google Maps image showing I-25 running north-south along the foot of the Spanish Peaks through Walsenburg, Colorado
Canada Goose throwing insults
1/6400 sec f/5.6 ISO 500, all three shots
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

As we parked by the marshy end of the lake, a blast of squawks and honks erupted from the reeds. Several Canada Geese were swimming about and arguing. Loudly. Because geese.

Canada Goose standing sentry
1/6400 sec f/5.6 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

After the fracas, the goose stayed vigilant. He’s not floating on the water, he’s standing on the bottom, pretending to be all calm and aloof, but actually on high alert. I was intrigued by the way the edges of his feathers line up, presenting a series of tiny overlapping ridges encircling his body.

Yellow-rumped Warbler all spiffy in breeding plumage
1/5000 sec f/5.6 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This bird seemed very familiar… and yet, there was something new and different about him. I tentatively identified him as the Yellow-rumped Warbler, affectionately known as Butterbutt at home. This one doesn’t have tinges of dusty brown along its back, it is very distinctly black, gray and white. And yellow! Its yellow patches are much more vivid than the birds I’d seen at home. Turns out the sharp black, gray and white coloring is the breeding plumage of this warbler. And the range map on All About Birds explains what I was seeing: the Yellow-rumped Warbler winters in Texas, and breeds in Colorado and parts north.

Male Western Tanager in breeding plumage
1/3200 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Flitting low, only inches above the shallow edge of the lake, we spotted an almost electric flash of color. Had someone’s parrot gotten loose? Nope, this is the Western Tanager. Apparently, the Western Tanager’s red head color is due to a rare pigment called rhodoxanthin in the foods the bird eats – some Western Tanagers have heads that are fully scarlet, some only half red, some just have a smudge of orange around their face. This little fellow has been getting his vitamins!

Male Western Tanager with less vivid head
1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

A second male bird showed a more orangey coloring.

Immature Red-tailed Hawk takes flight
1/6400 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

My back was to the sun when a large dark shadow swept over me. I looked up to see this hawk which must have been perched in a bare-limbed tree behind my right shoulder. Look at the wear on those tail feathers.

Circling back around to check me out
1/6400 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

For a moment I thought this would just be another series of butt-shots as a bird I should have seen earlier departed. But this bird turned to check out my camera sounds, whirling overhead before leaving for the tree line at the opposite end of the lake. He looked right at me!

I believe this is a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk. There is no red in his tail, but the long, rounded shape of his wings and short rounded tail, along with the pale chin and speckled belly band bring me to that identification. The red tail feathers will appear after the first molt at one year of age, and the birds will breed at two years of age. His worn tail feathers testify to a full year of swooping through brush and marsh after prey.

We also saw male and female Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Killdeer with their red-ringed eyes, Spotted Tohee with red irises, Yellow Warbler, and ruby-eyed Western Grebes, but got no shots. Lathrop State Park was a great beginning to our northern tour, and will be worth another visit.

3 thoughts on “3500 Mile Adventure – Lathrop State Park”

    1. As I’ve started to learn more about birds, I’m amazed at the different plumages a single species can have… whether it’s juvenile vs adult, or non-breeding vs breeding, or various “morphs”, there’s a huge variety.

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