Early morning frost coated the grass-covered ground as we traveled north on Highway 287. We were offered donuts at the beginning of our travels to fuel our birdbrains. The morning of December 17th was not particularly warm, but we continued to a known wetland on the side of the highway, that in the past, has housed upwards of 20 Virginia Rails. We heard a single rail vocalize when we first arrived and spent the next hour or so walking slowly alongside the fencing above the prime habitat. As we continued to listen for rails between swaths of vehicles, we observed the valley that will soon be flooded and store water for northeastern Colorado.
As we continued on, we glanced at the skies as well and were rewarded with a Rough-legged Hawk heading across the valley. There were some more usual suspects—American Robins, Downy Woodpeckers, and Dark-eyed Juncos—frequenting the trees along the route. The cold was bone-chilling and we were grateful when the sun finally poked its head above the rock formations surrounding us, thawing our cold hands and clearing the fog from our binoculars.
As we continued north in our count area we targeted a Canyon Wren who had been spotted in the past on private land. Immediately we saw an American Kestrel perched on a fence post, and a group of American Goldfinches flew overhead. The habitat was great for Canyon Wrens, but we struck out and headed back to our car.
While heading back, a portion of our group practically had to duck as a Golden Eagle quickly rose over the hills, heading south. We could tell he had just enjoyed a large breakfast from his full crop and we were not far to follow. Our time came to refuel with burritos, counting House Sparrows and Eurasian Collared-Doves only to soon take on the arduous task of counting a Canada Goose flock that had settled in open farmland, numbering in the thousands.
With our heads spinning full of images of Canada Geese, we circled private residences, checking bird feeders along the way until we arrived at a friend of our group’s house. Surrounded by trees and open space, the owner had practically sent a formal invitation to all of the birds we were about to encounter. The arrangement was stunning: feeders full upon our arrival and the activity was only beginning. Steller’s Jays, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, Red-winged Blackbirds, Cassin’s Finches, and House Finches were all in abundance.
As some of our group had split in hopes to find Northern Saw-whet Owls hiding in the forest (none unfortunately were counted), a cry for attention came: a flock of 57 Bohemian Waxwings had come to visit, truly a highlight of our count.
It was hard to follow up the excitement of the waxwings, but we headed up the Poudre Canyon and stopped on several occasions to make sure we counted birds who frequent the river. We spotted a few American Dippers and we all also had a great lesson on the difference between a Black-Capped Chickadee and Mountain Chickadee call as their voices echoed near the bottom of the canyon.
We ultimately headed to Gateway Natural Area and took delight in a frenzied abundance of everyone’s favorite aquatic songbird: The American Dipper! We ended up counting 29 individuals in the Poudre River just at Gateway. Gateway also provided a tree featuring the birder’s dream: a Downy and Hairy Woodpecker right next to each other, providing perfect context to make that ID fairly easy, highlighting the differences between the two. As we walked along the Poudre fork back to the parking lot, a pair of Common Goldeneyes flew overhead, as the sun had begun to set.
Upon arriving back in the parking lot, the talents of one of our group members, an avian researcher, had come to surface as he made efforts to communicate with a Northern Pygmy-Owl. His calls were used for research purposes and we were educated on the proper ethics of using callbacks while birding. We were not fortunate enough to find any Pygmy-Owls, but at least we experienced a seasoned researcher who was able to perform a next-to-perfect call. Six exhausted birders, rumbling bellies and all, had concluded an eight-hour journey counting birds.