Early on a spring morning, well after the dawn chorus of birds has pronounced the day’s arrival, we gather under the cottonwoods to prepare for daily bird banding. The sun has yet to rise and bring its warmth to the night-chilled air of Chico Basin. We work in a small patch of spring-fed trees which provide a verdant oasis in the expansive prairie. The birds, although vocal, have yet to begin their foraging of seeds or insects, and remain huddled in protective thickets with their feathers fluffed for warmth like those in my down coat.
When will it be warm enough for the biologists to unfurl the mist nets? If it is too cold, the birds will be endangered. Too windy and they will be threatened as well. Although we may encounter a few resident birds, many of the species we witness arrive at dawn after a night-long migration, often exhausted and hungry. We hope warmth will bring hatches of insects and that an abundance of food is present. Their foraging movements will deliver the birds to the nets.
The day’s task is to record which birds are present in the grove and to share that information on a global database. Just as importantly, the birds will inspire a classroom of curious fifth graders who have arrived from the city. While the biologists measure, evaluate, and fill cells in the global database, the students’ questions whirl with excitement and insight.
I’m able to show the students a tiny Wilson’s Warbler who just arrived from winter in El Salvador, and once on another day I held a warbler first recorded three years earlier in Anchorage Alaska, as a fledgling. Journeys from Alaska to Central America and back are quite the feat for a bird which weighs one-quarter of one ounce; four of whom would make up the weight of a snack size bag of potato chips.
One itinerant traveler through Chico Basin was a Swainson’s Thrush, a bird which weighed in at one ounce. Less than one week later the same bird was identified nearly 1000 miles northward. Surprisingly, a flammulated owl was witnessed feeding in the lower altitudes of Chico Basin, timing when to ascend to its still wintry nesting range on the flanks of Pikes Peak. It was biding its time. Elusive terns, here one moment, miles distant the next, barely stop at Chico before alighting for the Arctic in the afternoon light.
Most birds migrate at night when the atmosphere is more stable and other favorable conditions for travel exist. It is a marvel of endurance and navigation often covering hundreds of miles, ending in hopes of food and shelter along Chico Creek.
Chico Creek creates a fine ribbon of refuge utilized by over 330 bird species, a habitat oasis for refueling. It extends southward from the blue grama and cholla uplands toward the Arkansas River, forming a north-south causeway. I can imagine warblers and thrushes smelling water and vegetation as they fly overhead in the nighttime darkness.
Surrounding the creek is uninterrupted and historically untilled prairie, which is the home to the Lark Bunting, the Mountain Plover, and Burrowing Owls. Long ago, the Ute, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and later the early homesteaders, realized that the prairie is inseparable from the creek.
After enthusiastic questions and comments by fifth graders, the wind gains unpredictable force, and the nets are furled by the biologists. We head to ranch headquarters to stand among the towering auras of cowgirls and cowboys who live and work in the openness of the prairie.
They tell stories of their work. It is apparent they rely on their own familiarity with plants and animals to guide their management of a healthy and sustainable prairie. From beneath their hats, they introduce their patient and trusted horses; fifth graders, turning on every word, dream of riding the endless prairie.
As we wrap up the day, a thought that should be obvious enters the discussion: It takes a wise person to understand how grasses, insects, birds, cattle and people create a deep and sustainable story. Nature relies on a complex accounting of component parts. When we are open to those complexities, we begin to know a place.
As a naturalist and science educator, Lee Derr spent many years guiding the Education Program of Chico Basin Ranch, coordinating groups and developing curriculum for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies along with the Interns of Chico Basin. Always learning and always observing, he visits ranches throughout Colorado as a Land Conservation Observer and still occasionally guides preschoolers through adults on learning adventures.