Trip to the Rockies ~ Eastern Colorado

September 19 & 20, 2020 ~ My mom loved the outdoors, rarely venturing away from home without her binoculars and trusty Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Roger Tory Peterson. So it was fitting that we would combine our trip to her memorial with some beautiful scenery and avid bird watching. We packed everything we could think of into the pickup for a 3-week road trip through the Rocky Mountains.

Google Earth screenshot of 3-week, 2600 mile trip

Our trip would take us through the savannah prairies of eastern Colorado, over the Continental Divide to the canyon lands of western Colorado, south to the historic Spanish land grants of New Mexico and the Rio Grande, and back through Texas and the dry limestone country of San Antonio, before returning to Houston.

My sister, also an avid naturalist, suggested Barr Lake and the prairies out toward Limon, as a starting point. Barr Lake, on the northeast corner of Denver Colorado, is normally a great spot for both wading birds and raptors, but Colorado has had only half their annual average 14 inches of precipitation this year, so the lake had shrunk to just a fraction of its normal surface area.

We spotted an American Kestrel, Falco sparverius, (also called Sparrow Hawk), the smallest of all falcons and very common across the entire US. It was a thrilling first for me, as I had not seen one before, even if he was very far away. His russet back, gray wings and barred neck (sometimes described as mustache and sideburns) are highly visible characteristics.

American Kestrel high in the cottonwoods at Barr Lake, Colorado
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800

From Barr Lake, we headed southwest towards Limon, so see what might be found in various creeks, if surface water was still present. Trundling down a (thankfully) nearly deserted country road over a dry sandy wash, we screeched to a halt. Three Wild Turkeys were calmly crossing the road in front of us!

Face only a mother could love
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

These are hens, since they lack the pronounced wattles, beard and spurs of the male turkey. They are the Rio Grande sub-species, Meleagris gallopavo intermedia, the most populous of the 4 wild turkey sub-species. Their characteristic marking is the light tan tips of the tail feathers and coverts (the back feathers covering the base of the tail); Eastern Wild Turkeys have black tips and Merriam’s has pure white tips. Their feathers show hints of the green, copper and orange found in the male’s more famous plumage.

The birds ignored us, continuing their search for seeds and grains on the far side of the bridge. They seemed comfortable in the open grassy bottom of the shallow gulch dotted with occasional tall cottonwoods, which gave them good sight lines for defense, and enough room for their substantial wingspan, should they need to take to the trees for shelter or for roosting.

Rio Grande Turkey hen quietly clucking to warn me off
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

We ended the evening with sightings of antelope and white-tailed deer in the twilight after sunset; both are common to the eastern Colorado prairies.

The next morning, we decided to explore our happy discovery: the Colorado Birding Trail, a series of 54 self-driving tours featuring over 800 public and private sites known for excellent birding. Kinney Lake on The Kingbird Trail was our first exploration, and a wonderful surprise.  It is a very small (small for Texas, y’all) spring-fed lake, so its edges were still lush and green rather than being dried and forlorn as with Barr Lake.

Among the Russian Olive trees bordering one side of the lake, we repeatedly spotted this brilliant flash of fiery yellow: a Wilson’s Warbler. The adult male has the polished black cap, while the female is yellow-headed with just a smudge of brown cap. I love the touch of apricot blush on his cheeks, and the fine whiskers surrounding his beak and extending under his eye, the better for catching flying insects.

Adult male Wilson’s Warbler in Russian Olive at Kinney Lake, CO
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500

They flitted between the branches, but their high-visibility color made them fairly easy to follow with the long lens.

Wilson’s Warbler pretending to hide among the olive leaves
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500

Not so with these russet and brown striped birds! They gave us a run for our money. The slightly rufous color of their wings in flight led us to call out to each other “Reddish in the willow on the right! Wait, now reddish is in the grass on the left!” It wasn’t until I got the photos home and could zoom in on these interesting birds that I could begin to identify them.

Their beaks identified them as some kind of finch or sparrow… but sparrows are not only challenging to photograph, they are tough little fellows to identify! According to some experts, there are 138 different species of American sparrow, most of which experience color and pattern changes through their molts.

Immature Chipping Sparrow takes a grooming break
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800

And to up the ante on bird identification, here’s a similar but somewhat different bird, with cinnamon crown, orange beak, light eye, grey-brown coverts and streaked upper back. This is complicated! I finally had the markings pinned to either a Chipping Sparrow or a Rufous-Crowned Sparrow. However, looking at the range maps, the Rufous-Crowned is only seen along the extreme southern border of Colorado, while the Chipping Sparrow is nearly everywhere in North America. Looking back over web photos of all maturities of the Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerine, I tentatively concluded that we had seen both an immature bird, above, and a mature non-breeding bird, below.

Mature non-breeding Chipping Sparrow camouflaged against willow bark
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800

Another member of the sparrow/finch family paused in a nearby willow. His yellow eyebrow and streaky chin, chest and flanks mark him as the Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis. He may have been migrating through the area of Kinney Lake to the south for the winter.

Savannah Sparrow showing off his yellow eyebrow
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800

It’s likely this is another Savannah Sparrow. Though its coloring looks exactly like the photos of the Ipswitch Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis princeps, the range of the Ipswitch is limited to Nova Scotia, the northeastern coastal US, and southern England, so Ipswitch seems highly unlikely.

Savannah Sparrow (or unlikely Ipswitch)
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800

Not to be left out of the finch-ish party, a pair of Pine Siskins, Spinus pinus, flitted between the sunflower seed heads along the gentle open slope beyond the willows and olives. They have areas of pale yellow in their coverts, stomach, and scattered along and under their wings.

Pine Siskin hunting sunflower seeds
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

And I had to use all of my out-of-focus photos to make this identification… you gotta love it when your only reasonably focused shot is the one obscuring the bird’s wing markings (but I am fond of the dried sunflower seed heads!)

Screenshot of out-of-focus portions of photos used for Pine Siskin identification – ugh!

We ended the day making a circuitous route through the deserted prairie ranchlands in search of any cell reception or gasoline. Staring at miles of unoccupied grassland stretching from horizon to horizon, while watching the gas gauge dip into fractions of a gallon made me wish I had my own pair of strong wings. And sure enough, the prairie didn’t disappoint.

We spotted this majestic hawk first on one side of the car, then did a sharp U-turn and watched him from the other side of the car as he did a touch-and-go from the fallow wheat field. His dark head, neck and chest, and absence of any russet on tail or shoulders, along with the shapes of his wing tips lead me to the identification of Swainson’s Hawk, Buteo swainsoni, intermediate or dark morph. You might remember the post I did earlier this spring on the light morph Swainson’s over my home in Texas.

Swainson’s Hawk, intermediate morph, on eastern Colorado prairie
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500

He skimmed the entire wheat field just a few feet from the ground, keeping a watchful eye on us, and finally settled on a distant fence post. While his head, shoulders and upper wings appear very dark, his stomach and flanks are not deep chocolate, so I lean towards the Intermediate identification.

Strong wingbeats carry Swainson’s Hawk over the fields
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500

Then, just as the sun was dipping below the horizon (and the gauge showed we had 23 miles left, while the map showed 14 miles to the nearest gas station, in Hugo), we spotted a second Swainson’s Hawk (also an intermediate morph), perched on a telephone pole. As we slowed, he moved to a post, watching us balefully, then finally yelling at us to be gone. He was irritated, and kept screeching, as he lifted and sailed off over the prairie.

Swainson’s Hawk scolding us
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500

This bird had more pronounced head and eye markings than the earlier one, but still showed the characteristic pale patch at the end of the underside of his wing. And if you don’t do it on any other photo in this post, you should click to enlarge the photo above, then click once more to zoom in (you can close the enlargement window to return back here). I love my 500 PF lens!

Swainson’s Hawk departing in a huff
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500

If I’m correct in my identification, then this was a fantastic end-of-season opportunity to see these two birds, as they migrate from North America to Argentina in August and September.

Swainson’s Hawk sailing off towards the evening horizon
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500

After gassing up in Hugo, we drove the hour and a half back toward the lights of Denver, happily weary from an immensely satisfying 2-day exploration of the far-reaching prairies of eastern Colorado.

6 thoughts on “Trip to the Rockies ~ Eastern Colorado”

  1. Awesome photos and info! Sorry I missed out on seeing anything when we went out, but glad I got a chance to visit with you :o) Love the Wilson’s Warbler – what a great bright color! The detail on the hawk is awesome, especially loved the detail you can see on the feet and sharp talons – I can see why you love your new lens! Also love the mid-flight photos – the way the feather tips are curled up on the last photo – very very cool! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Karen. I was especially taken with that hawk’s feet gripping the vertical sides of the old wooden pole, using just his talons to keep from slipping off. Way fun!

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  2. Oh boy! Great image of a male Kestrel! We will have them on the coast this winter. And you are right, sparrows are difficult to identify (or catch) and especially hard during fall migration. Love the scolding hawk and looking forward to the next installment 🙂

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