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

Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007
Snow Geese

If its Halloween in Colorado it must be cold with either rain or snow.  It was cold but the rain was out of the west and southwest over the mountains.  I was surprised at how many ducks have moved in, especially around HQ and Rose Ponds.  Redheads, Ring-necks, and American Wigeons were numerous, and I saw my first Common Goldeneyes of the fall.  A beautiful Hooded Merganser was at HQ Pond along with five Buffleheads.  Three flocks of Canadas passed overhead heading south, and 60 Snow Geese, common in Colorado, but not so on The Chico.  They flew right over HQ and Rose Ponds. 

Rose Pond had the best landbirds with the winter's first Harris's Sparrows.  The largest sparrow and quite attractive,  Harris's breed in the far north, west of Hudson Bay up in the high arctic.  Harris was Edward Harris, a friend and companion of John James Audubon on his Missouri River expedition of 1843.  Hopefully this species, a rather uncommon bird in the state, will stick around like three did last winter near the Holmes Corral.

Other noteworthy birds included two Eastern Bluebirds (more on this one later), a late Brown Thrasher at Rose Pond, and a very tame Ladder-backed Woodpecker in the chollas just west of Rose Pond.  Perhaps the most interesting sighting was of a Slate-colored Junco with  two white wingbars.  This subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco rarely has wingbars.  It was in with a big junco flock on the dirt path leading west from the Holmes red barn and near the spring there.  Rather cold, but a good day birding. 

Posted by Bill M. on 10/31/2007

Orb Weavers

During the late summer and early fall, birds often shift their diets from insects to fruits and sometimes to arachnids.  The most visible arachnid at Chico is the black-and-yellow argiope, the most common of a huge group of orb weaving spiders.  To start a web, an orb weaver female lifts her abdomen and emits several strands of silk.  The threads combine into one strand, drifting in wind currents until it touches a substrate.  She then builds the web framework, next adding spokes, and finally the female switches to sticky silk.  Sticky silk forms the rays between the spokes that will catch prey for the carnivorous orb weaver.  

The orb weaver takes about two hours to complete its two-foot wide web and each morning the female eats the entire web and starts a new one.  Unlike most two-clawed spiders, orb weavers have three, the third one  used just to play out its silk.

All orb weaver adults die at the first hard frost, but the female has left behind 1-3 egg sacks, each sack containing up to 1000 eggs, so by Spring tiny spiders hatch, beginning the life cycle over again. 

During the days when LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs were used by some, researchers gave a number of orb weaver spiders a tiny dose of LSD to see what affects the drug would have on the spider's web building.  Instead of the perfect circular web, the drugged spiders made webs that were unusually asymmetrical.  If I remember correctly, during the beginning stages of the Space Program, NASA scientists asked school kids for suggestions for experiments that could be conducted in the weightlessness of Space.  One of the projects selected involved the affects weightlessness would have on the web building proccess of orb weaver spiders.

Posted by Bill M. on 10/30/2007

Barn Owl by chicken coop

Hey Bill

Thanks for the thorough reply!  We may move the chickens closer to us, so hopefully we'll keep them safe.  Was the dead Barn Owl by our present chicken coop?  That's too bad.   We've had a barn owl in that hole in the tree that you can see from our back door - I wonder if that was it?

We're  learning about "Flying Creatures" in science this year, so hopefully we can be ready for May!  Please let me know if there is anything spectacular or rare we should get out and see.  We still don't know what we are looking at when we're out there.  :)



Posted by Dawn M. on 10/28/2007

Western (prairie) rattlesnake

I took a chance that some migrant birds might have moved south in advance of the approaching cold front, but there wasn't much evidence of migration today.  A few birds were found that are somewhat late in leaving, including a single Common Grackle, Mourning Dove, and Gray Catbird, but on occasion one or two of the doves or catbirds sometimes remain for the winter.  A beautiful, but dead, Barn Owl was on the ground near the chicken coop. 

I drove out to the northeast sand/sage plant community and was rewarded with a view of a beautiful dark morph Ferruginous Hawk.  Named for the iron colors in its plumage, Ferruginous Hawk is a species of special concern in Colorado and other prairie states.  Unlike most Colorado hawks, Ferruginous Hawk feet are large enough to catch prairie dogs and along with Golden Eagle are the two most likely raptors to be seen by prairie dog towns.  Most of the other Buteo hawks would eat one, but usually don't spend time trying to capture p-dogs.  I was hoping to see a Rough-legged Hawk, a  raptor that comes south from Alaska and Canada for the winter, but they don't seem to have arrived yet. 

The temperature reached 70 degrees F by 10:30 AM, but still I was surprised to see four snakes on the roads, three of them the common western or prairie rattlesnake, the other a bullsnake or gopher snake.  One of the rattlesnakes was quite small, but all three buzzworms wagged their rattles when I approaced them.  If anyone sees the much less common Massasagua, please let me know.  I have only seen one in my lifetime on the dam at Rose Pond in June.  Massasaguas are very small, averaging around 14 inches in length and have heads only slightly larger than their necks with dark spotches on the lower parts of their faces with very thin white lines extending behind their eye, positioned just above and below their eyes.  Western rattlesnakes have heads that are wider, about twice the width of their necks.  These are the only two Colorado rattlesnakes.  Both are poisonous and young westerns can look a lot like a Massasagua.   


Posted by Bill M. on 10/26/2007

Wednesday, Oct 24, 2007
Rarest of the Rare - Long-billed Thrasher

Birding appeals to some people because each day is totally different, a treasure hunt where the prize might be something extremely rare.   Winter is by far the slowest season for birders, and many of us count the days until the beigining of Spring migration.  However, winter sometimes brings the biggest surprises.   In early January 2006, Brandon Percival, a regular at the Ranch, came to Chico to see what was happening.  When he returned home, he called a couple people and sent them a digital photograph of a skulking thrasher that he said didn't look right for the uncommonly wintering bird, Brown Thrasher, and for sure was not the gray resident thrasher, Curve-billed.  Because the bird was not seen clearly, it was written off as a Brown Thrasher.  A few days later, I was at Chico and I saw a thrasher near the RMBO Banding Station that was NOT a Brown Thrasher.  It was a "brown" thrasher alright, but it had a gray face and its tail and back were brown and not the rufous tones of the bird named Brown Thrasher.  I thought it had to be a Long-billed Thrasher, a bird that I had only seen before in its South Texas, Lower Rio Grande Valley home.  There were only two records of that species in Colorado.  Two records, that is, until this bird showed at Chico and where it spent the entire winter, leaving sometime in late April.

Long-billed Thrasher is described as being non-migratory.  Howerver, there are one or two records from New Mexico, four now from Colorado, and last winter one was reported in SE Arizona.  More than 40 birders came  to Chico to see our Long-billed Thrasher, which although reclusive, eventually would come out to feed on Russian olives.  I believe that everyoe who came to look for it , ended up seeing the Long-billed Thrahser well.  The bird furthered  Chico Basin Ranch's reputation for being one of the best birding spots in the State.

Posted by Bill M. on 10/24/2007

Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007
Cotton Top

Known by hunters as Cotton Top, Scaled Quail is a resident at Chico.  People living north of the Palmer Divide miss out on seeing this species, unless they visit one of the 11 southeastern Colorado Counties were this species is resident.  These gray quail are at the northern limit of their range in southern El Paso and Lincoln Counties.  Fall is the time when winter flocks form, and what a surprise when a flock seemingly explodes from underfoot.  Like other quail, Scaled Quail follow boom  or bust cycles.  Following wet springs, numbers soar, while during drought periods, numbers plumet.

The Latin name, Callipepla squamata is interesting as the genus name comes from the Greek word kallos, beautiful and peplos, a ceramonial robe, thus " beautifully adorned".  Look closely at the shingled feathers in the photo and you can see that the species name is also apt, meaning scaly.  During Spring and Summer when Scalies nasal, long-drawn whisle is commonly heard,  you can usually find a bird perched on top a cholla cactus or tall rabbitbrush. Like most quail, however, they prefer the ground, where they search for seeds of four-winged saltbush and other shrubs.  Look quickly becasue they  will more often scuttle off than fly.

Posted by Bill M. on 10/23/2007

Saturday, Oct 20, 2007
Woodpecker tongues and feet

There have been 9 woodpecker species recorded on Chico and this one, Lewis's Woodpecker, is the least encountered, although it breeds nearby.  It was named for Meriwether Lewis,  co-leader of the Lewis and Clark exploritory expedition of the American West, 1803-1806. Few bird species, and only one woodpecker, has these strikingly beautiful pink feathers. 

All woodpeckers species hammer on dead parts of trees or even on stout plant stems; all that is, except this one.  Lewis's Woodpeckers spend a lot of time catching airborne insects and therefore most need to retreat south during winter months.  However, Lewis's  Woodpecker also eat acorns and  pine seeds, so during times when there is a bumper crop of both, some idividuals remain in Colorado for the winter. 

Woodpecker tongues are long, barbed, sticky, up to five inches in length, and retractable.  Where does all that tongue go when it isn't exploring a tree crevice?  When not in use,  woodpecker tongues are coiled inside a channel in the bird's head, wound up below the cheeks, up past the back of the head,  up near and across he top of the head, and then fully wrapped, 360 degrees around the eye.  The long  tongues of hummingbirds,  are anatomically similar.

But, it might be woodpecker feet that are even more amazing.  Unlike most land birds which have three toes facing forward and one facing back,  all woodpeckers, except for the two species that only have three toes, are zygodactyl, with two toes facing forward and two facing backwards.  That is the normal toe arrangement, except  for when woodpeckers hitch up trees, which is much of the time.  During those times the outer rear toe rotates to the side giving more grip. However, woodpeckers can not climb tree with their feet alone.  In addition, woodpeckers' central  tail feathers are quite stiff and pointed and they are flexible, helping to anchor the bird while it climbs.  In order to climb,  a woodpecker will move both feet together in a small jump, the tail pushed back against the tree trunk, and up it goes.  

A prize (owl pellet?) to the person who can find the Chico fence post along the entrance road that this bird was using.  Hint:  It is near where the blackbirds are flocking in the sunflower heads.


Posted by Bill M. on 10/20/2007

Friday, Oct 19, 2007
Great Horned Owl

Dawn asks a very good question about Great Horned Owls and cats.  Great Horned Owl is the largest and most powerful avian nocturnal predator and the most common owl in the U.S. and Canada.  Like its daytime counterpart, Red-tailed Hawk, they are generalists who aren't fussy about where they live or what they eat.  There is a pair of Great Horned Owls that have nested in a large cavity in the big cottonwoods extremely close to the Moons' house for the past five years and probably longer.  Their favoirtie food is rabbits and as Duke has mentioned earlier, this has been an extremely good year for the ubiquitous desert cottontail.  Great Horned Owls are the earliest owl species to nest and can have eggs as early as January or February. 

Next time you find an owl feather look at it closely.  One edge of the feather is raised.  This causes air to pass over it in a silencing manner.  If you hold the owl feather by the shaft and wave it, there is no sound, unlike the feathers of diurnal birds of prey which when waved will make a lot of noise.  Most owls also have their ears slightly oftset, (ears are in the large facial disk where the gray meets the blackish border, not in the "horns", which are really decorative feather tufts) so that sounds traveling from a  potential prey item to the owl's ears are recorded in the owl's brain at slightly different times, thus enabling an owl to triangulate its food source, even without seeing it.  In a laboratory experiment, an owl was intentionally blinded and it was still able to locate  mice, entirely by sound. If you were to look at an owl's brain, the area for sound reception occpies the largest amount of brain space.  The large facial disk on Great Horned Ows is shaped like a T.V. satelite dish, the shape funneling sound waves to the owls' ears and on to the brain.   

When Great Horned Owls are feeding their young in the Spring, they will even hunt in the daylight hours.  There have been observations of some owls flying directly into the leaf nests of squirrels to flush them into the open. I found a long list of known prey items from Great Horned Owls which includes: chipmunks, wood rats, mice, muskrats, weasels, skunks, squirrels, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, pocket gophers, opossums, and even  porcupines; also large snakes, DOMESTIC CATS, and bats.  Also eats a variey of birds, including birds as large as Canada Gesse, swans, small herons, rails, pheasants, domestic turkeys, CHICKENS, all of the hawks that are found on Chico, woodpeckers, jays, crows, blackbirds, meadowlarks, juncos, sparrows, mockingbirds, robins,and even has been recorded to eat, frogs, goldfish, crayfishes, crickets, beetles, grasshoppers, katydids, and scorpions.  In other words, they will eat almost anything.

I lost my cat, Piha (really pea brain) when I lived in an undevelped portion of Alubquerque, NM, but I think that it was more likely eaten by a coyote.  So, especially when Great Horned Owls are feeding their young, late March through May, cats and chickens are probably viewed by the local Great Horned Owls as easy prey.  The Chico chickens may not have succumed to the cold last winter, but to the local Great Horned Owl. 


Posted by Bill M. on 10/19/2007

This is GREAT!

I look for your postings every evenings when I sit down to catch up on the computer.  Thanks Bill!  I'm learning alot and  looking forward to more.

Posted by Duke P. on 10/18/2007

Are our cats safe?

Bill said: "Great Horned Owls can eat prey as large as a skunk and one of its nicknames is the Smelly Owl"......

So, Bill, does this mean our kittens (almost full grown at this point) and cats are not in fact safe from the Great Horned guys?  We had heard cats were too big and they probably wouldn't eat them.   But, skunks are that big!  :)  Thanks for this journal, it's great!


Posted by Dawn M. on 10/18/2007

Thursday, Oct 18, 2007
Sandhill Cranes

Duke asks where are all these cranes coming from and where are they going?  There are 13 species of cranes in the world and Sandhill Crane is by far the most abundant.  In Colorado two subspecies are recognized, Greaters and Lessers.  Lesser Sandhill Cranes breed all across the non-forested parts of Canada and Alaska.  They fly southeast in the fall from as far away as Siberia (one of only a few bird species to breed in Siberia and winter in the U.S.), ending up for the winter in grasslands of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico.  Lesser Sandhills are the ones that can be heard from October through November, flying high overhead.  (Greater Sandhill Cranes,  an Inter Mountain West breeding subspecies, has mostly migrated south already.)  You may not actually see Sandhills during flight, as they migrate as high as 12,000 feet, but their calls can be heard from over a mile away.  Colorado's Monte Vista NWR was established, in part, to provide a staging area for Sandhill Cranes and each March the city and the refuge sponsor a Crane Festival during part of the time when Sandhills are staging there on the cranes' long flight back north.   Very rarely the larger and endangered Whooping Crane can be seen with a flock of Sandhills in eastern Colorado.

Posted by Bill M. on 10/18/2007

Tuesday, Oct 16, 2007

There is a family of mostly crepuscular (dusk and dawn) birds with complex, cryptic plumages, called goatsuckers or chupacabres, from an old myth claiming these birds suck goat milk at night.   By far one of the more interesting bird family names, the members of this bird family are primarily insect eaters.  The most common member of the group on Chico is Common Nighthawk, sometimes known locally as "bullbat".  These predominately insect eaters have left Colorado for warmer climates, but as we approach Halloween, it seemed a good time to mention them for their Spanish language name.  One of the characteristics of all goatsuckers is their wimpy bills.  So how would these small-billed birds chase down an insect?  Although the bill is tiny, the mouth is huge.   When nighthawks open their mouths, long stiff rictal bristles (see photo) surround the mouth extending outwards to form a giant entrance into which insects are funneled.  Because nighthawks feed in low light situations, their eyes are quite large, but not as large as truly noctural birds such as owls.  Look for Common Nighthawks on horizontal limbs or fence posts during late spring and summer at Chico, or if you are about at dusk or dawn or on a cloudy day, watch them in thier fast, erratic flight chasing insects, not goats. 

Posted by Bill M. on 10/16/2007

Monday, Oct 15, 2007
Owl Pellets and mammal bones

One of the most recognizable birds in North America is the very large predator, Great Horned Owl, whose low 5-7 note hoots can be heard at dawn and dusk.  Like other predaceous birds, owls do not masticate their food, but with much neck-stretching and eye-blinking, force their prey into their gullet whole.  Thus, owls ingest fur, bones, scales, claws, beaks, toes, and other inedible parts.  The digestinve system of owls can not deal with this assortment of trash in the same manner that mammals do.  Owl gizzards reject materials not digestable and the owl regurgitates the waste in the form of a compact pellet.  Great Horned Owl pellets are fairly easy to find underneath the bird's favorite roosts.  This pellet measures approximately five inches in length (smaller in smaller owls)  and below the pellet photo you can see the variety of small mammal bones that I extracted from it.  The Chico Great Horned Owls are easily found at Homes and the grove by HQ Pond.  This pellet has leg bones that are most likely from wood rats, and there is part of a skull from a smaller unidentified rodent.  Great Horned Owls can eat prey as large as a skunk and one of its nicknames is the Smelly Owl. 

Posted by Bill M. on 10/15/2007

Sunday, Oct 14, 2007

Leaving home in Colorado Springs in a light rain, I hoped the overnight cold front would drop some migrant birds at Chico.  When I arrived at 0730 the Sangres and Pikes Peak were black from the approaching front.  However, an intense rainbow lit up the threatening sky while a light rain began.  Raining a bit too much at HQ, I moved north to the Banding Station where I found another new Ranch species, Red Crossbill, another mountain speices.  This brings the Ranch birdlist to 312 species. Although the birding was slow, a large flock of American Robins flew in from the northeast, most birds landing in the large snag at Homes, before diving into the olives.  A lone Long-eared Owl flushed from a dense grove of Russian olives.  Overall a beautiful cool morning, with few migrant birds.

Posted by Bill M. on 10/14/2007

Sunday, Oct 07, 2007
Pine Siskin

Fiinally a cold front that has pushed some late migrants south.  As mentioned previously, it appears that there is a major exodus of mountain bird species onto the plains this fall.  Pine Sisikin, a species that breeds in high mountain conifer habitats and uncommmon on the Ranch, appeared today with seven individuals seen.  They were feeding in the tall sunflowers near the Banding Station along with American Goldfinches and a couple House Finches.  Pine Siskin is another irruptive species, sometimes undergoing long migrations in fall in search of food.  A Hairy Woodpecker was seen nearby, another mountain species rarely recorded on the Ranch.  Two pronghorn hunters were nearby; luckily they were not hunting in the same areas where I was birding.   An Osprey hunted over Headquarters Pond and late migrant Hermit Thrushes were skulking at the bases of the peachleaf willlows along the Rose Pond dam.  A flock of 22 Ring-billed Ducks flushed as I walked along the dam, their numbers increasing weekly.  A few Yellow-rumped Warblers are still moving south through the plains, two foraging with a large flock of Mountain Bluebirds, a species that often winters at Chico. 


Posted by Bill M. on 10/07/2007

Friday, Oct 05, 2007
Early October Bird Migration - Male Cassin's Finch

Mountain birds on the Plains is this month's theme at Chico.  Irruptive species such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Cassin's Finch, and Mountain Chickadee have appeared almost overnight on the Ranch.  All three species leave their mountain homes during years of poor cone production and can show up in the Fall even as far as Kansas.  Mountain Chickadees spotted so far have been feeding on aphids on the leaves of sunflower plants and on the seeds remaining in the dried flower heads.  Three Cassin's Finches have been spotted at Holmes, the first time ever recorded on Chico and the 311th species on the Ranch Bird List 

John Cassin (1813-1869) was a Philadelphia ornitholgist.  His name is commemorated in five bird species, four having occured on the Ranch, Cassin's Finch, Cassin's Sparrow, Cassin's Kingbird, and Cassin's Vireo.  He described and named at least 11 species new to science during his 26 years as Currator of Birds at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. 


Posted by Bill M. on 10/05/2007

The Mountain Plover

Poorly named, Mountain Plover is a bird of the shortgrass prairie. It is a bare ground specialist and as such should be looked for at Chico in black-tailed prairie dog towns. The species is uncommon on the Ranch where it arrives in late March and departs from the Ranch in August. Birders come to Colorado from all over the world to see this range-restricted species. Cryptically colored, Mountain Plover relies on its dull coloration to avoid its major predator, swift fox. When alarmed it often turns it back making it very difficult to find. During the breeding season, the female often lays two clutches of eggs, the first one incubated by the male and the second tended to by the female.

Posted by Bill M. on 10/04/2007

Yellow-throated Warbler

May is the month when most birders visit the Ranch (one of the stops on the Pikes Peak Birding Trail) and also the month when rarities, especially warblers are most likely to appear. Yellow-throated Warbler, one of the rarities, is a bird of the southeast U.S., yet it has been seen a couple of times on the ranch, here in a plains cottonwood at Rose Pond. Migrant traps at Chico include the trees along the south side of Rose Pond, the small woodland around the small headquarters pond, and the large groves of trees at near the Casita and Holmes ranch houses. A Checklist of the Birds at Chico Basin Ranch (311 species as of October '07) and a map of the major roads and place names can be obtained at Ranch Headquarters, where birders must register before heading off to search for birds.

Posted by Bill M. on 10/04/2007

Subscribe to Feeds
CONTACT US 719.683.7960