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Birding at the Chico

The Chico Basin Ranch is a major flyway for migratory birds, due to the abundant springs, lakes and bird habitat on the ranch. The ranch works closely with Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and has over 300 birds on the ranch bird list. Many people come to the ranch in the spring and fall to bird.

Bill Maynard is one of birders that comes most frequently. When we asked him if he would keep the ranch birding journal, he was pleased and agreed to do it. Thank you Bill! Bill has taught high school biology, worked as a naturalist for the National Park Service and as a biologist for a variety of government agencies. He has also worked for the American Birding Association at their national headquarters in Colorado Springs. 

Click Here to download the Ranch Bird Checklist

Click Here to download the Birding Trail Map (4mb PDF)

Click Here to download the Ranch Dragonfly and Damselfly Checklist

Lynx rufa
 Bobcats are not rare on Chico Basin Ranch and although they are not tame they usually don't run away if you stand still.  They have few predators on the plains which might explain why this bobcat did not run while I watched.  Bobcats move about during low light levels, emerging from one of their multiple dens about three hours before dusk and then again about an hour before sunrise.  Prey items might include rodents and birds, squirrels and rabbits, but they can take down small deer too.  Hunting is by stealth and during a chase, a bobcat easily jumps 10 feet in a leap. 

At the hairdresser, a short haircut might be called a bob, a phrase referencing the short, 6 or 7 inch tail of a bobcat. Both bobcats and their very close relative, Canada lynx have the same genus name, Lynx rufa for bobcat and Lynx canadensis is the name of the larger species with the much larger feet who lives in the mountains. On occasion these two related species hybridize and offspring are are given the name blynx

Although I have been hissed at by female bobcats (probably with kittens nearby) there are no records of bobcats attacking humans although female bobcats are aggressive towards other female bobcats. 
Posted by Bill M. on 11/22/2017

Circumpolar Species
 Of the four species of longspur, Lapland Longspur is the most abundant with a worldwide population estimated at 150,000,000 breeding over a large circumpolar range.  On the Chico, they are seen on occasion in November into early December if you walk in shortgrass prairie and get lucky. Like all longspurs, their hind toe is elongated as implied in their scientific name, Calcarius laponnicus, Calarius from Latin calcar, or spur, referring to their very long hind toe.  In summer they are beautiful birds, but like the other longspur species, they are dull-colored during winter months and unlike many songbirds who molt to obtain a breeding plumage, longspurs obtain their breeding plumage by a slow wearing of their feather tips. 

On November 9th I saw a few flocks totaling over 300 individual Lapland Longspurs on the Chico, by far the most I have seen here. There was a report of over a million birds in one flock seen in a snowstorm last winter on agricultural fields in eastern Colorado where they search with Horned Larks for waste grain.  During a blizzard in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa a number of years ago, an estimated 1,500,000 Lapland Longspurs were killed as they flew into unseen structures.  Given Lapland Longspurs breed in tundra where there are no structures, it is not surprising that this type of avian accident could occur outside their breeding range during blizzard conditions. 

Because most birders do not drive out in the huge expanses of shortgrass prairie, few see the large flocks of this species that could be flying about anywhere there is prairie habitat. 
Posted by Bill M. on 11/10/2017

First Colorado Record - Tropical Kingbird
 Seventeen-year-old David Tonnessen and two of his younger brothers, Jonathan and Judah, watched a never before seen in Colorado Tropical Kingbird at the far end of the banding station woods on 17 September 2017. As the name implies, this flycatcher is primarily a tropical species, breeding in the U.S. only in SE Arizona and the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Its full breeding range extends south through Mexico, all of Central America and west of the Andes to central Peru and east of the Andes, south to central Argentina. Some of the distinguishing characteristics that separate this tropical tyrant-flycatcher from its more northern congeners, especially Western Kingbird and Cassin’s Kingbird are its large bill and long, slightly notched tail. Couch's Kingbird with one Colorado record is the most difficult congener to separate from Tropical Kingbird. But, Couch's give one-note calls whereas Tropical Kingbirds give high-pitched twittering, metallic calls that are easily recognized.

David used his iPhone to get a recording and the sonogram he produced proved the bird was a Tropical Kingbird. 
Tropical Kingbird is a very common bird in most of its range and easy to find as it perches in the open often on wires or exposed to view on the top of tall trees.  Compared to other flycatchers, it has a specialized diet, primarily chasing large insects in flight.  It will eat fruits as well which might explain why the Colorado bird was seen in a fruiting Russian olive tree although on the 17th of September there were still large numbers of grasshoppers and other insects present.

The photograph of the Tropical Kingbird is one I photographed in San Blas, Mexico. Unfortunately, only the three brothers saw the Chico bird before it flew to the west. Ironically, a second Tropical Kingbird was discovered in NW Colorado a few weeks later. 
Posted by Bill M. on 10/21/2017

Painted Lady Butterfly Phenomenon
 Painted Lady butterflies were common to abundant this spring on Chico Basin Ranch. They seem to disappear in the fall, however this year they are abundant.  Radar images show why Painted Ladies aren't seen most falls in a migration that extends further north (arctic) and further south than the famous monarch butterfly migration. The combined spring and fall Painted Lady migration (fall butterflies are the offspring of spring Painted Ladies) is as long as 9000 miles in length. Sophisticated radar now shows Painted Ladies migrate as high as 3,000 feet above ground level and can fly up to 30 mph. Due to abundant summer rains on Chico Basin Ranch, the common Rabbitbrush shrub (Ericameria nauseosa) has produced a bumper crop of flowers and migrant Painted Ladies are stopping to feed all along Colorado’s Front Range this fall.  Painted Ladies undergo a complete metamorphosis; a life cycle from egg, larva, chrysalis to adult takes about 30 days, meaning the adult butterflies observed in spring migration are not the same individuals seen flying south this fall.  It is not uncommon to see 20 or more Painted Ladies feeding on a single blooming Rabbitbrush. 
Posted by Bill M. on 10/20/2017

Double-crested Cormorants
 Named for head feathers appearing during breeding season, Double-crested Cormorants were adversely affected after WWII when the use of DDT was permissible as a pesticide. DDT, when broken down to DDE, causes egg shell thinning in birds at the end of the food chain so Osprey, Bald Eagles, and cormorants had difficulty producing offspring because when they incubated their eggs, the shells were not strong enough to support the weight of an adult bird.  Today, this species and others affected by DDT have rebounded from pre-1970 lows and in areas of aquaculture where catfish and baitfish are raised in ponds and in sport fishing areas in the upper Midwest; cormorants are considered villains, congregating in these areas during winter months. In Shakespeare’s plays he uses the word ‘cormorant’ to mean villainous.  Interestingly, both U.S. pelican species eat more fish per day than cormorants do, but because of pelican’s beauty, or possible because of white vs. black plumage, cormorants are considered foes.

In the northeast, cormorants have rebounded so much that people petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to open hunting seasons to reduce cormorant numbers where nesting cormorants’ guano has begun to kill trees at nesting sites and in areas where they were blamed for the drop in bluefish numbers. Cormorants focus on the smaller schooling “trash fish” and eat about one pound per day. In 24 states, aquaculture producers may now shoot cormorants feeding on private ponds or they can call on government officials to shoot birds on nearby roosts and/or oil cormorant eggs. As a result, about 40,000 cormorants are killed each year or about 2 percent of North America’s population in spite of an outcry by the National Audubon Association and animal rights groups.

In Colorado, Double-crested Cormorants nest in small colonies, like the ones at the west end of Pueblo Reservoir, and they are still considered uncommon on the Chico and in neighboring areas. This is a single Double-crested Cormorant on Chico Basin Ranch’s Upper Twin Pond. It is a young bird who was perched on a wooden post drying it feathers. Because of the nature of cormorant feathers, they have fewer oils than waterfowl feathers, so they must air-dry their feathers periodically or they will become waterlogged and sink.

As one Minnesota wildlife biologist summed up the situation in areas where cormorants are abundant…“at the heart of the issue is a nearly zero tolerance for cormorants.” 

Posted by Bill M. on 10/19/2017

Western (Prairie) Rattlesnake

The more common of the two poisonous Colorado rattlesnakes, the western or prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus) is found across the Great Plains.  The other poisonous Colorado snake is the small and very local Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus). Seven to eight thousand people are bitten by rattlesnakes each year but death from a snake bite in the U.S. is usually about five persons per year. Snake bites in humans are mostly from two rattlesnake species not occurring in Colorado, eastern diamondback and western diamondback.  However, on October 7 of this year a 31-year-old man was bitten on the ankle near Golden, Colorado and he died from the venomous bite. Rattlesnake venom contains both a hemotoxin (affects the blood) and a neurotoxin (affects the nervous system) and the amount injected is usually 20% to 55% of a snake’s stored venom; but a rattlesnake can give a dry bite up to 20% of the time.

Prairie rattlesnakes are viviparous meaning they give to birth to live young, usually in late August into September so it is not uncommon to see young-of-the-year on dirt roads during this time period like the one in this photograph. In October, or sometimes into November, prairie rattlesnakes move to burrows to overwinter, often with over one hundred other snakes including other snake species. If available, rattlesnakes often use prairie-dog burrows in which to spend winter months.

The number of rattles on a rattlesnake shouldn’t be used to age a rattlesnake as they produce a new one every time they shed their skin which is usually at least twice a year if the food source is abundant. In Colorado, prairie rattlesnakes eat a lot of field mice and rodents as large as a small prairie dog and small prairie cottontails, but lizards, voles, and shrews are also commonly consumed.

Rattlesnake meat can be consumed by man, but on the Chico prairie rattlesnakes are hunted by raports like this Red-tailed Hawk whose bare legs are usually not, but sometimes susceptible to a rattlesnake bite. Woodrats, found in draws with cholla cactus, are immune from rattlesnake venom and they will bite back when attacked by a rattlesnake. Although I don't always follow my own advice, it is best to leave rattlesnakes to the hawks.

Posted by Bill M. on 10/17/2017

A Pandemonium of Trumpets, Croaks, Rattles, and Cries
 Some of our most majestic flying birds, Sandhill Cranes, are common in fall migration at both Chico Basin Ranch and in the San Luis Valley where in spring an annual crane festival highlights this incredible bird.  Two populations occur in migration, Greater Sandhill Cranes breed in the Rocky Mountain regions whereas Lesser Sandhill Cranes migrate east across the Bering Strait before heading south where some join Greater Sandhills flying over Colorado.  The naturalist, Aldo Leopold, described approaching and calling Sandhill Crane flocks as first "a tinkling of little bells" and as they fly closer as "the baying of some sweet-throated hound" and finally when closely overhead as "a pandemonium of trumpets, croaks, rattles, and cries." During clear weather migration Sandhill Cranes can fly high over the Rocky Mountains, but each evening they land in large flocks in marshy areas or in stubble fields and feast on corn and other grains. Because of their fondness for corn, a chemical has been developed to add to corn kernels before they are planted which remarkably keeps these huge migrant flocks feeding on other seeds in the corn fields but not on corn itself. 

Sandhill Cranes are monogamous and they remain paired throughout the year staying a pair until one bird dies. Newly formed pairs join in elaborate dancing before pairing. A brief description of part of their courtship display follows. One member of the pair elevates its bill, arching slightly forward and emits a low purring call. The mate reciprocates. One of the pair then circles the other with wings flapping and the male jumps on the female's back. The male then jumps forward over his mate's head, begins a threat display, and then both enter into a long sequence of  preening. Fun to watch at any of the spring crane festivals in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska. 
Posted by Bill M. on 10/09/2017

Broad-winged Hawk
 A small Buteo with broad wings and a raptor that doesn't breed in Colorado, at least three Broad-winged Hawks were observed the first week of October on Chico Basin Ranch, this one perched at the north side of Rose Pond.  This is usually a secretive eastern forest species that also breeds west into western Canada.  Although solitary during the breeding season, they amass in great numbers on both their spring and fall migrations. Because they avoid flying over large bodies of water, in fall most of the population flies west across Louisiana and the Coastal Bend of Texas before heading south along the west side of the Gulf of Mexico. The daily record of counted Broad-winged Hawk at Corpus Christi, TX, was 446,000 birds. Most of the world population can be viewed at hawk watch sites in Veracruz, Mexico where over 500,000 have been recorded in one day. A few, mostly young birds winter in South Florida. 

It is thought that Broad-winged Hawks are expanding their breeding range to the west and a few have bred in the past in Colorado.  This perched bird can be identified by the short folded wings that are much shorter than the tail, the facial pattern showing a white chin with a dark central vertical streak, and a dark bar on the sides of the brown auriculars and in juveniles,  like this bird, a white supercilium above the eye. 
Posted by Bill M. on 10/08/2017

Chico Fall Bird Banding Seasonal Report
 The fall bird banding season is over, sad but true. This season produced the usual birding excitement and some drama with three different bird banders at different times anchoring the team. The best bird was one that didn't get caught, what will become the first Colorado record of Tropical Kingbird discovered very close to the banding station nets by a 17-year-old and his two younger brothers.  Although the eastern species, Baltimore Oriole, makes an annual appearance at Chico, the one banded this fall was the first ever for Chico. Even better, Chico's first record, and therefore, the fist ever banded here, Pacific Wren was measured, studied, photographed from multiple angles and high-fives were given between the few of us in attendance after it was released back into the wild. The second ever Chico Yellow-bellied Flycatcher was also caught, but because of the difficulty in the identification of flycatchers in the Empidonax genus the bander thought it best not to put a metal band on the cool little flycatcher. Measurements and photographic documentation later proved the bird to be what we thought it was, one of the few confirmed records of this species in Colorado.  

Rain necessitated the nets to be closed on three days but still the total number of birds banded was a respectable 911 representing 60 bird species and two additional distinct subspecies.  Also exciting was the strong influx of mountain species indicating a lack of food in some neighboring mountain regions. Every season is different and I am already looking forward to the late April beginning of the next Chico banding season.

Posted by Bill M. on 10/07/2017

A Closer Look
 Home to cattle, cowgirls, cowboys, birds, fishes, horses and on occasion goats, sheep and chickens, there is another, hidden side of the Chico Basin Ranch that you have to get down on your knees to see.  Over 300 insect species have been identified here to date and that is only a beginning. If I was still a biology teacher, I would bring all of my classes to the Chico in order to take a closer look.                  

While waking in Chico Basin Ranch’s northeastern most pasture with Maddie and Richard, looking at migrant flocks of Chestnut-collared Longspurs (one of the few bird species endemic to the Great Plains), I heard the distinctive buzz of a robber fly. Robber flies are the wolves of the insect world, swift flying, winged predators. Some robber flies are mimics, looking very similar to bumblebees. This large, drab robber fly, however, has large bulbous claspers on its posterior identifying it as a male in the genus Efferia.  It landed near me and it wasn’t until I returned home to look at my photographs that I saw why the robber fly was spending so much time in one location.  It was sucking the body fluids out of a leafhopper. There are over 2500 leafhopper species in North America. Leafhoppers and close relatives, sharpshooters, use their mouthparts to extract fluids from plant stems. Leafhoppers are often brightly colored and frequently have their hind legs cocked and ready to leap away from would be predators, but not quick enough to leap away from this robber fly. While out in the field next time, take a closer look. 

Posted by Bill M. on 10/04/2017

Posted by Bill M. on 09/18/2017

How to I.D. and Age An Orange-crowned Warbler
This adult (orange crown feathers visible after blowing on the top of the head) Orange-crowned Warbler appears to be reading the IDENTIFICATION GUIDE TO NORTH AMERICA BIRDS Vol. 1 by Peter Pyle, the bird-banders bible. The book tells bird banders what to look at and what to measure in order to age a bird and how to separate it from look alike species. It also suggests one or two band sizes that should fit the leg of the species. 

 ORANGE-CROWNED                                                               OCWA
Vermivora celata                                                                           Species # 6460
                                                                                                       Band size: 0-0A

Species--From Tennessee Warbler (which see for separation from Phylloscopus warblers) by tl long (42-53; see Age/Sex); longest p - longest s 8-15 mm; upperparts olive to yellowish; distinct eye ring absent. Eastern birds from Mourning Warbler by much smaller size (wg 51-66, tl 42-53; see Age/Sex); undertail covs usually brighter yellow than the belly; legs blackish.

tl = tail, p = primary, s= secondaries, wg = wing, covs = coverts

The book then goes on to describe the different Orange-crowned Warbler subspecies, what to look at to determine molt limits, what to look at after wetting the top of the head feathers to see if the skull is ossified partially (this year's birds) or completely (birds older than one year), and then tells the bander what to look for on a bird to determine its age and what to look at to determine its sex
Posted by Bill M. on 09/15/2017

Sexual Dimorphism
 Outside the breeding season, many of Chico Basin Ranch's male and female mammals look similar.  For example, male and female spotted ground squirrels look identical to the untrained eye. However, in many bird species the plumage differences between males and females is striking. Think ducks and game birds. Taking this a step further, it makes sense for all ground nesting birds, where females perform the majority of egg incubation duties, for the female to be dull brown in order to avoid detection by predators.  

Blue Grosbeaks, a fairly common breeder where there are dense trees or shrubs on the Chico, is a good example of sexual dimorphism in birds.  First, look at the beaks for identification purposes and you can see why the French name gros meaning large is a good name to describe the size of this grosbeak species' bill. As expected, the female (right) has a dull brown plumage but the male is strikingly colored. (This bird is actually a month old male. Young birds need to be dull regardless of gender to avoid detection. After a molt, he replaces his brown feathers with the bright blue ones) There is a reason. During the mating season males compete for available females. Male bird songs say to females "look at me, I am hot" and if the females show any signs of interest for the singing male, he then strut his stuff, showing off his fabulous plumage, and sometimes flying in with a takeout grasshopper to the female.  Sometimes it all seems to work.
Posted by Bill M. on 09/13/2017

Then They Go And Change Their Plumage
 The poet, Ogden Nash, humorously wrote about how difficult it is to identify birds in his poem "Up From The Egg." He mentions that even after finally being able to identify a bird it changes its plumage writing..."then it goes and changes its plumage, which plunges you back to ignorant 'gloomage'..."  This is true but what he doesn't say is that juvenile birds take weeks, months and sometimes even a year to molt to adult plumage. I have shown in previous posts that some birds such as longspurs wear the tips of their feathers, not a true molt, resulting in a fresh and brightly colored breeding plumage whereas some birds suspend their molts until reaching their wintering grounds. These birds show a combination of adult and juvenile feathers if caught at the banding station.

Above is one of the most common migrant birds of the Chico, Chipping Sparrow.  In the fall many of the Chipping Sparrows caught and banded are juveniles and their plumage is different than it is when they become adults. At the left is an adult Chipping Sparrow as it looks in April and May. On the right is a juvenile bird as it appears in September and October. Making the identification even more difficult is the Chipping Sparrow genus, Spizella, has three other members passing through the Chico at varying ages and some of the juvenile birds are very difficult to identify.  Beginning birders sometimes ignore looking at sparrows and some may just call them LBJs, little brown jobs. 
Posted by Bill M. on 09/12/2017

Not So Fast My Friend
A great example of the relentless pursuit of food by birds, in this case a Western Kingbird and a cactus dodger type of cicada (Cacamas sp). This cicada was securely in the kingbird's mouth but as I slowly drove closer to get in range for a photograph the kingbird opened its mouth and the cicada tried to escape.  A meal this size is prized so the kingbird went after the cicada and successfully recaptured the cicada and maneuvered it head first so it would slide down more easily. Often birds will first remove wings and heads of insects first before swallowing. Most people take it for granted that birds need to eat, sometimes a constant search for the next food item. Photography and filmography are two of the best ways to record some of the many insects and other prey items birds eat in order to feed their young and to stay alive. 
Posted by Bill M. on 08/06/2017

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