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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

Lots of New Arrivals
Today's start was cold with winds out of the northwest, usually not the best wind direction for birding on the last day of April.  But, the first Western Kingbird of the year was at The Casita, Lark Sparrows started to pour in, a few Green-tailed Towhees were at headquarters, a Brown-headed Cowbird competed with the Moons' chickens (not a favorite with birders), few Cliff Swallows trickled in, the first of the season Gray Catbird made an appearance, and so did a few Virginia's Warblers (photo).  Tomorrow's predicted high of 40 degrees F with a rain/snow mix could be ideal for bird migrants to drop in for food.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/30/2011

American Avocet
One of the striking large shorebird species, American Avocet will let you know if they are present with their loud piercing weet calls.  Their black-and-white wings are especially prominent in flight.  Females are easily told from males, like this one, by their exaggerated upturned bills. None nest on the Chico preferring highly saline shallow lakes or flats.  Their unique feeding method is by elevating their rear ends at a 45 degree angle and swishing their bill back and forth in the water or sometimes they will use their long bill to pick arthropods from the surface of the water.  At rest, head is often tucked under a wing while standing one one leg.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/28/2011

Mush Rats
Muskrats are rodents that are widespread spending the majority of their lives in aquatic vegetation in ponds and lakes.  Their tail, flattened from side to side, alone distinguishes them from all other mammals.  They can build a small elevated house of marsh vegetation but most, if not all, of them on the Chico nest in the sides of banks with the opeing most often underwater.  When first viewed, this muskrat looked like a wet rock, that is until it was viewed from the side.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/28/2011

Shorebird Migration Underway
Today there were 11 shorebird species at Chico. New arrivals included the three peeps, Western (photo), Least, and Semipalmated sandpipers.  Willets were here and they were reported all along the Front Range in big numbers with >100 at Big Johnson Reservoir across from Fountain Valley School.  The colorful female Wilson's Phalarapoe were spinning for food near the shore.  The common Orange-crowned Warbler made a visit to the willows around the Moons house. 

Bird banding has begun.  Stop by the RMBO banding station; four port-a-potties this year!  Lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers were caught and House Wrens are showing up as was a Brown Thrasher.  It is starting to happen!
Posted by Bill M. on 04/25/2011

Horny Toad - NOT

Horned lizards, like this Short-horned lizard (my first for the Chico), are very interesting reptiles.  They often freeze until almost stepped on and then they run on short legs at surprisingly quick speeds, heading for cover.  When picked up they will sometimes poke their head spines into your hand and sometimes they will spurt blood on your hand or shirt.  What?  Yes, the blood is stored in their lower eyelids and is a defense mechanixm used against its predators, coyotes, foxes, and roadrunners.  The blood is thought to be distastful so predators will likely drop them instead of eating them.  Short-horned lizards eat ants, especially harvester ants.  Grazed grassland habitats are the prefered locations for these very cool critters.  They are gone for good from urbanized areas of Colorado and from areas with intensive cultivation.

Posted by Bill M. on 04/21/2011

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebes are remarkable birds.  During much of the year they are flightless at which time they loose much of their weight.  Some of the population spends much of their lives in highly saline lakes such as Mono Lake in California.  They often sit very high in the water and frequently show a wide and fluffy butt. Their bill is dainty compared to its counterpart, Horned Grebe (rarer on the Chico).

Posted by Bill M. on 04/21/2011

High School Skinny

Another Long-eared Owl was passing through on its way north and seen by 10 birders on a birding trip with Massachusetts Audubon.  The owl possed nicely and never moved while cameras clicked.  Nocturnal owls look significantly different during the daylight hours from their posture during the night.  During the day, Long-eared Owls in particular change their shape to look more like a vertical branch, this one showing that characteristic particulary well. 

BTW, the out-of-state birders (two from San Francisco, one from New York, and the rest from Massachusetts) loved Chico Basin Ranch and they were treated to good looks at Burrowing Owl, Great Horned Owl, the cooperative Long-eared Owl, Mountain Plover, a nesting Curve-billed Thrasher, a coopertive Ladder-backed Woodpecker, two Sage Thrashers, Brewer's Sparrows, a spectacularly displaying Golden Eagle, a passel of White-faced Ibis, six or so species of shorebirds and their leader, Charlie Nims, found a short-horned lizard, my first for the Chico.

Posted by Bill M. on 04/21/2011

The best time to see a Marsh Wren is in the spring when they are singing.  There is a loudly singing male in the bullrushes in a section of the Headquarters Pond.  It is still too early to tell if it will try to nest here, but it has been singing loudly from the same area for three weeks.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/20/2011

Franklin's Gull in the Alfalfa

Not all gulls are found by the sea.  The dark-headed Franklin's Gull breeds colonially in the Canadian prairie provinces south into the northern prairie states where they pull up vegetation to form floating mats where eggs are laid. In winter they leave the U.S. and continue south coastally to the Humboldt Current off of Peru and Chile.  In migration they sometimes are seen in flocks of tens of thousands.  Their winter diet of invertebrates, taken near the water's surface turns parts of their plumage, mostly their bellies, to a pink coloration.

Posted by Bill M. on 04/19/2011

Brewer's Sparrow Arrives

A Brewer's Sparrow was singing it amazing song south of the alfalfa field.

Posted by Bill M. on 04/19/2011

Look at Me
Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the most numerous birds in North America, evident by the numbers seen in the Chico corrals in winter where they feed on waste grain and can visit the chicken coop too, quite interested in the cracked corn and other chicken scratch.  One of the most studied species, Red-winged Blackbird males are polygynous (males breed with multiple females), some matting with as many as 15 females. The first female to settle in a male's territory becomes dominant over other females joining the harem.  The males' red epaulets are used to warn other males from entering his territory. DNA fingerprinting has shown that females are not faithful and they will mate with other males in adjacent territories.  Females also have a song type and they defend a sub-territory within the dominate male's territory, defending it against other females. 
Posted by Bill M. on 04/19/2011

Migration Continues

Brewer's Sparrows were singing in the four-winged saltbushes.  A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher searched for insects in the new leaf buds in the willows.  Two flocks of Franklin's Gulls came by Headquarters Pond with a single bird stopping to see what the irrigation waters would flush from the alfalfa field.  One hundred fifteen Eared Grebes were on Headquarters Pond along with a Snowy Egret (above) along with a flock of 30 White-faced Ibis while male Red-winged Blackbirds were in full display along with Wilson's Snipes in the marshes.

Posted by Bill M. on 04/19/2011

Peregrine Falcon
In spring and fall you don't have to watch a nature show to see Peregrine Falcons.  They follow migrating shorebirds, the falcons flying at great speeds in pursuit of prey items.  John Drummond took this excellent photograph of a Peregrine Falcon yesterday, a species back from the brink of extinction.  Now that DDT has been banned north of Mexico, the species has made a dramatic comeback; it is no longer endangered and it is even nesting in a few locations in Colorado.  The breakdown of DDT to DDE, when injested via prey species, affected the shell-producing gland in Ospreys, Peregrines, Bald Eagles, and some other species (cormorants) to produce a shell so thin their eggs broke during incubation.  Without young being added to the population, these avian predators at the end of the food chain began to disappear, the Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle affected dramatically. 
Posted by Bill M. on 04/16/2011

New Migrants -Mountain Plover

Vesper Sparrows were fairly common today.  A Peregrine Falcon has been in the area for the past two days.  A single male Mountain Plover was calling up on the hill in the usual spot, difficult to see when facing away. A flock of 28 White-faced Ibis fed in the northwest edge of Headquarters Pond.  I found a nearly completed Curve-billed Thrasher nest but no eggs have been laid as yet.  Both "Audubon's" and "Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warblers were in the willows at Rose Pond.  My first two Least Sandpipers were at Headquarters Pond.  Two American Pipits fed in the mud there.

Water is being taken from both Rose and Headquarters Ponds to irrigate the alfalfa field and the mud at HQ Pond should be perfect for shorebirds in a couple of days.

Posted by Bill M. on 04/16/2011

Keystone Species
Black-tailed prairie-dog (Cynomys ludoviciana) is considered to be a keystone species, a species whose presence in the ecosystem is greater than the sum of the parts.  The parts are Burrowing Owls, which use abandoned prairie dog burrows, prairie rattlesnakes, that enjoy the already constructed burrows for their homes, badgers who enlarge existing burrows as do both gray foxes and swift foxes which will feed on a prairie dog when they can. Mountain Plover, a bare ground and a short grass specialist, needs fire or prairie dogs to keep the vegetation short enough for their needed nesting habitat.  Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks are powerful enough to overtake a prairie dog thus keeping the prairie dogs in check.  Plague also takes its toll on prairie dogs, being introduced into the Bay Area in the 1800s, as vectors on fleas on rats from the holds of ships; the plague since spreading east into eastern Colorado and a good reason to keep pets away from prairie dog towns (can carry the fleas which might have plague inside the house).

Ludoviciana translates as "of Louisiana" but there aren't, and have never been, black-tailed prairie-dogs in Louisiana.  Our Western Tanager (Tangara ludoviciana) carries the same epithet, of Louisiana, but they are a western species breeding nowhere near Louisiana.  But, remember the Louisiana Purchase that included eastern Colorado and was a region when both species were named to science.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/16/2011

King of Them All
The fiercest avaian predator, Golden Eagle, has nested on the Chico until its nest tree blew over a few years ago.  Because there are currently abundant black-tailed prairie dogs on the Chico, Golden Eagles come here on a regular basis to hunt them.  Golden Eagles are found worldwide in mountainous habitats and they have been filmed chasing young mountian goats off of a cliff.  No jackrabbit or prairie dog is safe when a Golden Eagle is in the air. There is a pair nesting on the Chico this year, but if you find it, please stay far away as the female is currently incubating.  Eagles are federally protected by the Eagle and Hawk Conservation Act.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/10/2011

Skylarking Snipe

The many Chico springs, especially the ones creating larger wetlands, are attractive to the shorebird, Wilson's Snipe.   Where these wetlands remain ice-free in winter, some snipe remain throughout cold periods. But, it is during spring that they put on a spectacular aerial show, the males climbing higher and higher and then plummeting towards the ground.  While on the ground, cryptic coloration keeps them safe from predators.  I tried to photograph this snipe with its fast-flying acrobatics for 30 minutes all the while walking to a wet area where I had seen a pair earlier.  The bird came down from the sky and landed in front of my feet.  Breeding in high mountain meadows, Wilson's Snipe's skylarking song is quite similar to vocalizing Boreal Owls.

Posted by Bill M. on 04/10/2011

Cassin's Sparrow
A Chico specialty bird, Cassin's Sparrow, arrival date to its breeding grounds usually depends on the availablility of a combination of taller/denser grasses combined with scattered shrubs (structure) including cholla cactus, saltbush, or greasewood.  At least one bird is singing on the north end of Chico.  In a month, as long as their are spring rains, they will be one of the most commonly heard birds, its skylarking, discordent song easily learned.  Like many other prairie passerine birds, Cassin's Sparrows skylark to project their voice farther than they could from the ground or from a shrub.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/10/2011

Migrant Long-eared Owl
Now that the large stands of Russian olives have been removed, including the traditional winter roost, Long-eared Owls are difficult to find on the Chico.  During both migration periods they should be looked for in any dense stand of trees, here at the Banding Station.  I found one nesting pair in late April a few years ago so there is always a chance a pair will use a squirrel's nest and stay to breed if there is abundant prey.  It is possible that when most of the Russian olives were removed this past fall, the rodents headed for the banding station for cover, forcing rodent predators to search in these woods for prey items.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/08/2011

Merlins on the Move
The falcon, Merlin, is the fiercest predator, pound for pound of all the raptors, often chasing birds more that twice its size.  In migration all birds have to be opportunistic feeders.  This Merlin, a prarire subspecies, found a meadow vole, and uses a Chico fencepost to mantle over its prey.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/08/2011

Barn Owl at the Banding Station
Both a Long-eared Owl and a beautiful Barn Owl were high in a tall cottonwood after a herd of cattle moved the Long-ear up to a higher roost.  Great Horned Owl is breeding near headquarters and in a couple other locations on the Chico.  A Lesser Earless Lizard was my first sighting of a reptile this season.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/07/2011

4 Owl Day
Thursday was a great day for migrants. First of Spring (FOS) birds included the first singing Cassin's Sparrow, 2 Horned Grebes, both Common and Hooded Merganser, a Long-eared Owl, a Barn Owl, 2 Burrowing Owls that are on territory, a rare Greater Roadrunner to the west of HQ Pond, a Prairie Merlin hauling a vole, and an early Hermit Thrush (photo), easy to see at the Banding Station with its contrasting rufous tail that it frequently pumped, alternating with wing flicks.

Posted by Bill M. on 04/07/2011

Yellow-headed Blackbirds
At least 6 Yellow-headed Blackbirds arrived today, right on schedule. Many are migrants but a few usually stay to breed in the cattail marsh on Rose and Headquarters ponds.   Sometimes just called Banana Head.
Posted by Bill M. on 04/07/2011

Lesser Yellowlegs
A new shorebird for 2011 arrived today, Lesser Yellowlegs, one of the early migrants but most often arriving after Greater Yellowlegs, the latter with twice the bulk. In migration, Lessers fights with others over the best feeding territories. They walk rapidly and with a purpose, most often picking arthropods off the surface. 
Posted by Bill M. on 04/07/2011

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