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

Migrant Warblers

Warblers, more than any other species, are the reason birders come to the Chico in the spirng.  A natural migrant trap, Chico has had more than its share of warbler sightings (34 species and counting).  During spring, the first warbler species to arrive is Yellow-rumped Warbler followed by Orange-crowned Warbler in most years. 

To some, Orange-crowns are a bit blah with uniform dull yellow-green coloration that comes far from dazzling the eye like other rarer and brighter species.  In fact, it is often impossible to even see the feature from which the bird gets its name, the orange crown.  And, there is a little-known rule that says a bird is named after its least visible feature (see Ring-necked Duck for example). 

But, when looking down from above, some species often reveal features invisible to birders looking up.  As this Orange-crowned Warbler shows, it has a bright orange crown seen showing beneath some green crown feathers, the orange more prominent in males like this bird, than in females.  In fact, in some females the orange feathers may be entirely lacking.

Posted by Bill M. on 04/30/2009

Female Mergansers
I was birding with my nephew and his dad on Sunday and I quizzed my nephew about all the female ducks on HQ Pond.  He told me he didn't study any of the female ducks.  Many of the less common species recorded on Chico are females and in most duck species males and females are sexually dimorphic, the males brightly colored and the females more dull.

Today, I found my first Red-breasted Merganser on the Chico where it is rarely reported.  If birders didn't know their female ducks, many species would go unrecorded.  The bird on the bottom in difficult light is a female Common Merganser.  When the two species are viewed from a distance on large reservoirs, it is often difficult to tell the differences unless an observer knows what to look for. 

If you compare the base of the bills in the two species, the base of Red-breasted Merganser is thin and it is wide-based on Commons.  The shaggy plumes at the back of the Red-breasted Merganser's head is often called double crested and is only single crested in Commons.  The other feature to look for is the demarcation of the feathering that separates the head from the neck.  In Common Merganser (bottom) notice the sharp line that separates the reddish head from the white throat.  In Red-breasteds, the lighter reddish head gradually grades into buffy white, so the two are actually very easy to separate when seen well.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/28/2009

Godwits and curlews
Other than their bills, Marbled Godwit (upper) and Long-billed Curlew have similar brown mottled plumage.  Both have bicolored bills but in migration Marbled Godwit feeds with its recurved (upturned) bills in flooded fields, whereas Long-billed Curlew with longer decurved bills feeds in drier short grass and mixed prairies mostly searching for earthworms.

Long-billed Curlews breed in eastern Colorado but are just migrants on the Chico.  Duke alerted me to the group of Long-billed Curlews out in the sand where a pair searched the winter wheat, probing for worms.  This is the largest shorebird in North America and only one of nine birds endemic to the Great Plains.  The scientific name Nuemenius comes from a Greek word meaning "of the new moon" and their long curved bill looked, to some, like a crescent moon.

The origin of the word godwit is uncertain but may come from the Old English god wicht  or "good creature" because it was  tasty.  Its upturned bill is probed into wet earth and small worms are sucked up through its long bill.  A flock of seven were feeding on the edge of Rose Pond in flooded sedges.

Both species have loud haunting calls, especially the curlew.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/22/2009

19 April Part II
One of the more interesting migrants is a small bird called Eared Grebe.  It is not too difficult to see the feature selected in the naming of this species.  As it molts into breeding plumage, a number of fine golden feathers form in the area where its ears are located.

Like all grebes, this species will soon begin an elaborate courtship display, bobbing and streching its neck out to full length with its mate doing the same as if both were participants in a choreographed duet.  Eared Grebes build floating platform nests out of grasses and sedges along the margins of lakes and ponds attaching them to nearby vegetation, but not on the Chico.

This species remarkably spends 9-10 months in a flightless stage, often in rafts of thousands of birds where they feed on brine shrimp and other aquatic organisms.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/19/2009

Sunday April 19
Inspite of  two cold days, at least three Canada Goose babies hatched and are pipping away on the small headquarters pond artificial nesting platform and tire.

Today was a good day for migration and four species of swallows flew around Headquarters Pond.  Only one Mountain Plover is being seen to the east, on the hill by the Phillips' house and there are two Burrowing Owls up there too.

A flock of White-faced Ibis, along with a Great Blue and Green Heron, plus a Snowy Egret are feeding along the west shore of Headquarters Pond.  At least three small flocks of Western Bluebirds were feeding on the ground in various areas and a small group of Mountain Bluebirds were nearby a Western Bluebird flock near the alfalfa field.  At the usual shorebird spot, both Least Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, and a Marbled Godwit enjoyed the good loafing spot.

The most interesting observaton I made was of three coyotes walking slowly towards a heifer that was sitting on the ground.  The other heifers paid no attention to the coyotes and I suspect the coyotes were waiting for a calving.  The coyotes detected me an high-tailed it west towards the sage habitat.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/19/2009

Monday - 13 April

After the Sunday storm dropped 0.6 inches of moisture near Chico HQ, I decided to see what migrants were passing through.

In addition to lots of waterfowl still happy to be on the Chico lakes, like this drake Green-winged Teal, there were other birds heading north.  Finally, two species of swallow swooped over Headquarters Pond, both returning Barn Swallows and migrant Tree Swallows that will continue northbound or up into the foothills and mountains.

The next on the list of Chico shorebirds to arrrive was a single Least Sandpiper.  I saw a single Frnaklin's Gull, the prairie gull, circle HQ Pond a few times calling before heading north.  My first warbler, a Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler chased bugs in willows by the small HQ Pond.

At the Banding Station, the only migrant was a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a bird that will nest in the mountains.  At least six Chihuahuan Ravens were making a racket, and one dove on and chased a coyote, a real surprise. 

Posted by Bill M. on 04/13/2009

Shorebird migration begins
The first shorebirds of the year have arrived, the loud and large Killdeer first, followed by Greater Yellowlegs, the aptly named large wader with bright yellow legs. However, shortly after Greater Yellowlegs arrive, a smaller version of the same bird, Lesser Yellowlegs appears.

With just a little study, the two species can be told apart by looking at a combination of features and listening to their flight calls.

The upper bird, Greater Yellowlegs, is two times the weight of the lower bird, Lesser Yellowlegs.  Greater Yellowlegs (when not in the water up to their belly) is rangy and often looks like it has an Adam's apple.  The bill is slightly upturned about half way to the tip and  the bill length is much longer than the length of the birds' head.  In comparison, Lesser Yellowlegs has a shorter straighter bill and it overall appears somewhat dainty.  The bill on this species is just slightly longer than the smooth contoured small-heaed Lesser Yellowlegs.  The flight call is a low whistled tu, most often doubled to tu-tu.  The call of Greater Yellowlegs is a loud, piercing dee-dee-deer, with the last note slightly lower.

Check out both common migrants this spring at the Chico.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/06/2009

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