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

 Way out in the far northeastern corner of the Chico, I had flushed a Chestnut-collared Longspur and was feeling good. Then, immediately in front of my left foot was a small prairie rattlesnake stretched out in the 60 degree temperature.  Since it wasn't coiled I took a few photographs, looked for relatives, his, and continued on my way.  Rattlesnakes eat grassland birds.  Also, two Ornate Box Turtles, a male (red eye) and a female (yellowish eye) were seen but very few birds in this sand/sage habitat. 
Posted by Bill M. on 09/30/2015

 Birders usually spend little time with this species, Brewer's Blackbird, but here is what they are missing.  A close look at some this morning in the corals showed the metallic greens and purple hues that give this bird an iridescent glow. To some the shiny plumage and piercing yellow eyes is enough to cause this species to be named "Satan Bird" in some communities.

Along Colorado's Front Range studies have shown that another shiny purple bird, Common Grackle, out-competes Brewer's Blackbirds in city habitats but Brewer's Blackbird out-competes Common Grackle in grasslands.  On the Chico both birds occur in migrations but Brewer's Blackbirds are the more common species.  
Posted by Bill M. on 09/29/2015

Migrant Falcon
 A small migrant trap with trees and a full stock tank was one of my destinations today. Suddenly a loud screaming noise was heard to the north and I worked to an open area to see who was coming.  This Prairie Falcon came screaming in, made two passes above the trees and right above me and then flew rapidly south.

It is estimated that the entire population of Prairie Falcons is only 4,300 to 6,000 pairs. Colorado has one of the higher densities of wintering Prairie Falcons so they are not rare on the Chico.  A notch in the bill enables this species to break the neck of its prey, either avian or mammalian.  It then plucks feathers if it is a bird or hair if it is a mammal. The dark axillaries (arm pits) and brown vs. grey back help to separate this species from other large falcons (Peregrine Falcon). 
Posted by Bill M. on 09/25/2015

Shrike Food
 The breeding Chico shrike, Loggerhead Shrike, often impales food it wants to save for later on thorns, barbed wire, or other sharp objects. This Great Crested Grasshopper was stuck on the end of a fence wire almost certainly by a Loggerhead Shrike and based on the age of the insect, the shrike must not have been interested in returning to this spot to feed or simply forgot about it. Small mice are also included in the list of impaled food items by foraging shrikes. These habits helped in giving the local name of "butcher bird" to Loggerhead Shrike. 
Posted by Bill M. on 09/25/2015

Bird Food - Grasshoppers
 Hidden from most birders' views are a dazzling array of insects, food for birds.  There are approximately 140 species of grasshoppers in Colorado and some of these have recently been identified on the Chico.  Because some of them have bright colors or interesting shapes and sizes, two of my favorite species are shown here. Both species are in a group called Slant-faced Grasshoppers. Handsome seems unusual for a name of an insect yet the top species is Handsome or Admirable grasshopper (Syrbula admirabilis). The females can be either green or brown and they can't fly, unlike the black-colored males that fly far when approached.  The bottom image shows the very slender Wyoming Toothpick Grasshopper (Paropomala wyomingensis), my favorite because of its unique shape and especially the shape of its antennae. They have very short wings but long hind legs so they jump instead of fly to escape predators. Both of these species are found in the dense, mostly pure grass stands on the Chico.
Posted by Bill M. on 09/24/2015

Spizella Sparrow Comparison
 Sparrows are an identification challenge, especially when juvenile birds are migrating during the fall months.  Three look-alike species that are commonly banded at the Chico Banding Station are closely related Chipping, Clay-colored and Brewer's sparrows.  The most common of the three Spizella sparrows is Chipping Sparrow (left).  They always have a dark lore, the feathering directly between the bird's eye and the base of the bill.  They always show a dark eyeline too, the dark line extending behind the bird's eye.

The center bird is the brightly colored Clay-colored Sparrow.  Its overall facial pattern stands out as well as the bird's bright and contrasty body plumage.  Clay-coloreds also show a buffy supercillium (above the eye) and a contrasting malar streak (facial  marking angling down from the base of the bill but just out of view in this photo).  Both Chipping and Clay-colored sparrows have a gray nape (region behind the bird's head) that contrasts with the brown tones of the head and back.

 The bird on the right is the dull Brewer's Sparrow with the finely streaked crown feathers and a clear white eyering that is often the bird's brightest feature.  Brewer's Sparrows have the less contrasting plumage of the three. They are often considered one of the plainest of the sparrows which can actually be helpful in identification.

Posted by Bill M. on 09/24/2015

Young Cooper's Hawk Caught
 The second Cooper's Hawk of the year was caught and banded today by Bird Conservancy of the Rockies' bird bander, Amanda Ziegelbauer. Cooper's Hawks are migrating now and this young bird came into a net attempting to seize a bird there.  Like Sharp-shinned Hawk and Northern Goshawk, Cooper's Hawk is an accipiter, meaning they have short wings and a long  tail which enables this species to maneuver through the woods in pursuit of their avian prey. The vertical brown breast streaking and the brown back separate this first year bird from adults having bluish backs and reddish horizontal breast streaking. 

Banding continues through the 3rd of October.  Come check it out!

Posted by Bill M. on 09/22/2015

Secretive Virginia Rail
 Virginia Rail is a common but very secretive bird breeding in the Chico cattail marshes. The species name, limicola, means mud dweller and they probe the mud with their bill searching for arthropods. Their loud one-note call is distinctive but Virginia Rails rarely come out into the open so I was surprised today when I startled one foraging in a 3-foot wide spring in Long Branch Trap. The rail had nowhere to go so it tried to hide behind a dead Russian olive.  It could easily see me so I sat down about 6 feet away waiting to see what it might do.  It eventually buried itself in a small stream-side pile of tumbleweeds.  As long as there is some running spring water during winter months, a few individuals remain on the Chico year round but the majority will migrate south where there are large marshes with permanently unfrozen water.
Posted by Bill M. on 09/22/2015

Plain Bird with an Interesting Song
 Warbling Vireo is a bird with a dull plumage.  However, there may be two species involved since the song in the east, including the eastern Colorado plains, is slightly different than its song in western states, including our Colorado foothills and lower mountains.
When trying to learn a bird song, birders often invent a pneumonic, putting what they hear to words.  For eastern Warbling Vireos I have heard people rapidly say "If I see you, I will seize you, and I'll squeeze you, 'till you squirt",  while the pneumonic I learned for western birds sounds like a very rapid, with lots of inflection..."what's on the menu, what do you order, what do you eat?" 
Posted by Bill M. on 09/16/2015

What Are They Doing to that Townsend's Warbler?
 If you read the posts for September you will see that identification of birds, especially in the fall, is often tricky.  Sometimes it is necessary to make many measurements of wing and tail lengths, bill lengths and widths.  To age a fall bird, sometimes the bander needs to wet the crown feathers which will then reveal the very thin skull and by looking at its pneumaticized areas (pinkish vs. gray or white), an age can often be determined.  Sometimes a bird bander needs to look at the contrast in coloration of the primary, greater, median, or lesser coverts so bird morphology is important to know.

School groups learn a ton of information about bird species, migration, foraging techniques, winter areas, migration paths and so much more.  Come on out to the Chico with a school group or group of friends and learn about birds and why birding is one of the two most popular sports in the U.S. according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Posted by Bill M. on 09/15/2015

Fall Warblers
 Two warblers that do not breed in Colorado, look at the thin bills, caught and banded today. The above species, a combination of white and shades of black and gray, is appropriately named Black-and-white Warbler, here a male.  Sometimes it is given the nickname, "referee bird" because of the black-and-white stripes.  It has a long bill that it uses to explore the deep fissures on tree trunks and large limbs, the place a birder looks to find one and not on thin branches or on leaves. 

The bottom bird is a common fall migrant in Colorado and is called Townsend's  Warbler, one of the most beautiful warbler species. It breeds along the Pacific Coast from SE Alaska south into southern Oregon, nesting in tall trees.  Three were caught and banded today.  
Posted by Bill M. on 09/15/2015

Clay-colored Sparrow
 Like the three look-alike Empidonax flycatchers, there are also three look-alike Spizella sparrows that can look similar during fall migration. The easiest to separate is the Clay-colored Sparrow (above) with a strongly patterned face with a bold buffy supercillium (above the eye but not on this young bird) and a strong mustache streak angling down and away from the bill. The other two species, Chipping and Brewer's sparrows can be more difficult to separate from each other and will be the subject of another blog post. 
Posted by Bill M. on 09/14/2015

Hammond's Flycatcher
 Look at this image and the two birds that follow.  All are Empidonax flycatchers, from the Greek and from emphis meaning gnat or mosquito and anax being a lord or king so The King of the Mosquitoes. Hammond was the Surgeon-General and a collector in the late 1800s. The bird often shows a head appearing a little too large for its body and often with a steep forehead.  The bill is key, and it averages 8 mm less width than Dusky and it has the narrowest bill of all the Empidonax flycatchers.  The tail is key too, with the length of Hammond's averaging more than 5 mm less than the long-tailed Dusky.  In fall, the contrasting gray head with green back stands out in Hammond's Flycatcher.  Adult Duskies molt on their wintering grounds so adults will have ratty plumage, unlike freshly molted adult Hammonds'.  These are not easy to I.D. and therefore fun.
Posted by Bill M. on 09/14/2015

Empidonax Flycatcher Challenge
 Finally, some interesting bird species showing up at the banding station. Everyone's favorites, Empidonax flycatchers with 7 look-alike species having been recorded at the banding station over the years.  Here are two common ones and a careful view will show the subtle differences in Least Flycatcher (left) and Dusky Flycatcher (right).  As the name implies, Least Flycatcher is small with a short tail and short wings.  The head is flat-topped and it has a broad eyering and its white throat contrasts strongly with the head and back coloration.  Dusky is a little bigger and it has short wings and a longer than average tail, the combination giving the bird a unique short winged, long tail look. And its head is never flat like in Least. The buff wing bars = a juvenile bird. Adult Dusky Flycatchers molt on their wintering grounds which will be important when I compare Dusky Flycatcher vs. Hammond's Flycatcher in the future. 
Posted by Bill M. on 09/10/2015

Sunflowers and Birds
 At least five species of sunflower can be found on the Chico.  Each species produces a quantity of large seeds so looking on the ground near large patches of sunflowers should yield a number of species of seed-eating birds. Sparrows, doves, thrashers, and finches are able to crack open sunflower seeds. One of the common fall migrants, a Vesper Sparrow was perched along the entrance road next to a large sunflower patch today.
Posted by Bill M. on 09/08/2015

Chico Tiger Beetles
 The same people attracted to colorful birds are often interested in colorful insects, most often butterflies and dragonflies but lately some of us are trying to learn to identify grasshoppers too. Some of us are also fascinated by the metallic hues of tiger beetles.  In North America, north of Mexico, there are 109 species recognized. Some of the more attractive ones are found in the sandy habitats on the Chico.  Three of them are (left to right), Festive Tiger Beetle, Arid Land Tiger Beetle (new for the county), and Big Sand Tiger Beetle.  
Posted by Bill M. on 09/08/2015

Late Season Dragonflies
 Blue-eyed Darners, common in summer are now being replaced by Paddle-tailed Darners (above). Both species have blue eyes, but Paddle-tails have cream-colored faces vs. light blue ones on Blue-eyed Darners. Plus, this species is inquisitive and sometimes one will fly over to the shoreline to have a peek, sometimes hovering for a few seconds.  

Bird banding will run through the month of September into the first few days of October.  Young sparrows are on the move and fall is always an exciting season because every day brings new surprises. 
Posted by Bill M. on 09/01/2015

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