“There’s a hawk, left side.”
Necks twisted and eyes strained into the gray sky. The bus immediately slowed, then stopped.
“What is it?” “Where’d it go?”
The hawk soared in front of the school bus, out of sight for most of the 30 or so passengers. We’d been two hours on the bus, heading south from Lamar into Baca County, where Colorado meets the Oklahoma panhandle. The windows had frosted up in the early morning chill, and even when we wiped them with our sleeves, the fog outside had for most of the trip obscured the prairie beyond the edges of the roadway.
Now, though, it was lifting and the excitement of seeing anything was palpable.
An expert hopped off the bus and scanned the sky. She relayed the news: “It’s a ferruginous hawk.” (Its name comes from its rusty-colored shoulders and legs, and it’s the largest of North American hawks.)
This was the South Canyon Tour of the 16th annual High Plains Snow Goose Festival held recently in Lamar. It’s a popular event with birders from throughout Colorado, and one of more than a dozen annual birding events in the state. Coming soon is the Monte Vista Crane Festival, March 9-11, and the Ute Mountain/Mesa Verde Birding Festival is set for May 9-13.
Some birding events feature special tours and lectures, others are billed as “open house” times when birds are migrating through an area. Sometimes, “educator birds,” such as species from the Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center’s raptor center near Lake Pueblo, are brought in to participate.
Diana Miller, wildlife rehabilitation manager at the Pueblo raptor center, was on the schedule at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival, and the weekend before had hosted visitors at the center as part of Pueblo Eagle Days. The center takes in wounded raptors for rehabilitation and release back into the wild, but about half are too damaged to release, Miller said. If they have the right personality, they are kept at the center as so-called educators so people can learn about such birds as golden eagles, turkey vultures, great horned and screech owls. Also, the center (https://natureandraptor.org/raptor-center) is open Tuesday-Sunday.
Most events offer tours that are reasonably priced, and they include bus transportation (often provided by local school district drivers) and sometimes meals. The South Canyon Tour, for example, was $35 for a 12-hour guided jaunt throughout southeastern Colorado, and it included a box lunch and snacks.
You need not be a “birder” to enjoy these events. In fact, at least half of those on the South Canyon Tour were there primarily to learn about the history of the region and explore the canyons of the Comanche National Grassland, and the birders readily shared their knowledge with the rest of us.
The bus stopped for other wildlife – especially Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. The festival is billed as “celebrating watchable wildlife and heritage history in Southeast Colorado,” and on this tour, we hiked into Picture and Carrizo canyons to see petroglyphs, pictographs, the remains of rock houses and the like.
The bus, of course, didn’t stop for every bird. Starlings and pigeons and ravens are much too common to earn more than a mention. A roadrunner, though, brought it to a halt.
“That’s my first one in Colorado,” one birder exclaimed of the roadrunner. Come to think of it, it was the first for me, too, although I’ve seen plenty of them in Arizona – and it’s one of those birds that’s easy to identify, birder or not.
Birders keep track of these things. The registration packet for the festival included a “Birder’s Checklist for Southeast Colorado.” I marveled at the length of the list – about 300 species of birds that either live in the region year-round or migrate through and can be seen at certain times. Some of the birders can identify them by their call, and then scan nearby trees or bushes to try to spot the elusive bird.
According to Colorado’s 2018 Official State Vacation Guide, the state is home to more than 450 bird species. A La Plata County checklist, available at coloradocountybirding.com, lists 319 species.
To help people find and see birds, and other wildlife, a partnership between government agencies and nonprofits developed the Colorado Birding Trail. According to its website: “The Colorado Birding Trail is a major nature tourism initiative to promote non-consumptive outdoor recreation, conservation of resources by private landowners and a diversified income for rural economies. The Birding Trail will link outdoor recreation sites, both public and private, into a network of sites where visitors can observe birds and other wildlife, often in addition to archaeological and paleontological treasures.”
The initiative has produced printed guides for Southwest, Southeast and Northwest Colorado, which can be found at Colorado Welcome Centers, Colorado Parks and Wildlife offices and other sites, or can be downloaded online at http://coloradobirdingtrail.com/resources/printed-guides.
The Birding Trail homepage, coloradobirdingtrail.com, offers a plethora of information, maps and links to birding organizations in Colorado.
If you’re new at this, don’t let the lists and terminology overwhelm you. Enjoy nature and let the experts tell you what you’re looking at. As one birder from Colorado Springs said during an evening reception at the Lamar festival, “I like to be spoon fed” and get help from experts with the checkoff list. After a day on the plains with some of these folks, I might be able to identify a ferruginous hawk (we saw two on the tour, and the second was quite close).
As I headed out of Lamar after that long tour, though, I realized that I never did see a snow goose. Ahh, well, there’s always next year’s High Plains Snow Goose Festival.
Sue McMillin, a long-time journalist and former city editor at the Durango Herald, is a freelance writer and editor living in Victor, Colorado.