Chico Basin Ranch is one of the prime birding sites in Colorado. Our rangelands offer 87,000 acres of uninterrupted, natural habitat, including cottonwood groves and riparian areas, for both year-round residents and migratory species passing through in the spring and fall. Local birder Bill Maynard takes us through some highlights of birding at the Chico in 2016.
The year after the tumbleweeds formed a wall on the east side of the bird banding area, the compacted and elevated weeds created many good roosting spots for owls. It seems the tumbleweeds not only provided cover for the owls but also brought with them a huge supply of seeds for the major owl prey base, rodents. In the Chico “tunnel” as many as 14 Long-eared Owls spent January, February, and March. Their numerous pellets concentrated on the ground near the banding table indicated a few favorite trees were used for perching where they coughed up the undigested fur, hair, and bones of their prey.
Short-eared Owls had only been seen once on the Chico until one of the former interns, Maribeth, showed me a location where she had flushed a wintering group of owls while she was moving cattle horseback. Common throughout much of the world, but very difficult to find on the Chico, Short-eared Owls are found in the sand hills, in areas with sand sage where rodent burrows are prevalent. They feed at night, perching on fence poles at both dusk and dawn, a time when most birders are home. This owl species tends to winter each year in the same areas, roosting on the ground each day where coyotes and swift foxes sometimes find them.
A large falcon nesting on rocky cliffs along Colorado’s Front Range, the Prairie Falcon will sometimes hunt in winter months over Chico prairies. Similar to its better known relative, the Peregrine Falcon, the Prairie Falcon is a slightly smaller, browner version, with dark axillaries (arm pits) seen in flight. They chase birds or take rodents by capturing them in their talons. Formerly thought to be closely related to hawks and eagles, DNA studies show all falcons and their close relative, parrots, share a common ancestor with…songbirds!
The long winter is over and one cool, windy day along the shoreline of Chico’s headquarters pond, a careful search might reveal the first shorebirds of the year. Although a rarity is always hoped for, the first likely seen shorebird is often a Greater Yellowlegs followed by the large, Long-billed Marbled Godwits and dull brown Willets, distinctively attractive in flight but with muted dun colors while foraging in the mud. The unusual name is derived by its very loud territorial calls, “pilly WILL WILLET” repeated over and over while in flight.
This is THE month to visit Chico for the ultimate treasure hunt. Each day brings more and different birds, some flying north to their arctic breeding grounds. But it is the warblers, small, colorful, fast-moving, sometimes rare, often difficult to see, that bring the most birders to the Chico, a natural migrant trap. The perfect day for birding is when the weather is at its worst, with winds blowing out of the east or northeast, and many birds that normally fly east or high over Colorado are blown off course and end up in the trees or on the ground at the Chico. Here, an aptly named Hooded Warbler flies to a new food source.
Alfalfa is grown in most states. A mostly eastern species, the Dickcissel, resembling a miniature meadowlark in some aspects, often selects alfalfa as a nesting site because of the dense structure it provides along with perches for singing. Before the first alfalfa cutting, as many as six male Dickcissels were observed singing in the denser areas of the Chico alfalfa field. After the mowing, the birds moved to dense weedy grasslands nearby.
This was one of the best years in recent memory for spotting breeding Burrowing Owls, a migratory species that uses abandoned black-tailed prairie-dog holes for its nest sites. Although Burrowing Owls hunt mainly at night for insects, family groups can often be seen perched outside their burrows on hot summer days. In order to escape predators they have multiple burrows available to them.
The nocturnal swift fox, obviously not a bird, is sometimes seen in August on the Chico when young kits venture above ground for their first time. Because of the many mouths to feed, look among the gentle rises for a swift fox hunting birds, small ground squirrels, and even insects during the daylight hours of August.
One of the memorable rarities for those at the banding station early in the morning, not one, but three Northern Saw-whet Owls were captured over a four day period in the mist nets erected to capture birds for banding by one of the Chico Basin Ranch partners, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. These tiny owls are nocturnal and at home in the breeding season in the Colorado mountains or in the far north.
October is the best month to find southbound Chestnut-collared Longspurs, one of the few birds indigenous to the Great Plains. Small and reclusive, their distinctive “kiddle kiddle kiddle” flight calls alerts birders to their presence. Like all longspurs, they wear a dull winter plumage in fall into early spring, their feathers gradually wearing away producing a beautiful breeding bird. Imagine the hidden black breast feathers becoming prominent during spring and summer.
A common summer breeder in the Land of the Midnight Sun, Lapland Longspurs (on right) escape the south using their very long wings to take them as far south as Colorado. On Chico Basin Ranch they hang with the resident Horned Lark (on left), both species found on the flat and barren prairies especially if there is a source of water nearby.
Rare at the Chico, a Red-bellied Woodpecker paid a visit to the banding station woods in early December and stayed until mid-month. It is in a group of woodpeckers, Melanerpes, who in addition to drilling into dead wood for insects, will also catch insects and spiders underneath foliage, or eat fruits such as Russian olives.
Chico Basin Ranch is open year-round for birding and wildlife watching. Find more information here , including maps and bird lists.