As spring nears, new migrating birds arrive here each day. While some are just passing through as they make their way farther north, others arrive in Eagle County and call it their summer home.
Several varieties of blackbirds summer in Eagle County, and a closer look reveals great diversity in the habitats occupied. Blackbirds, meadowlarks and orioles belong to a family of birds called icterids. This is a handy label because if you see a generic flock of blackbirds that are obviously smaller than crows, then they likely belong in this grouping. In fact, if you pay attention to blackbirds, you may find that suddenly they are quite familiar and surround you in your daily life.
For instance, a familiar blackbird to anyone who has ever visited a local marsh or wetland is the red-winged blackbird. The males have brilliant red patches on their wings that they display and flash in the sunlight while clinging to marsh vegetation, or gliding over a wetland. You can now hear the song of the male red-winged blackbird which is a loud “konk-a-ree” that trumpets as a reminder of the coming spring.
Marshy ponds that have begun to melt out in lower elevations from Edwards to Gypsum will be the summer home for the raucous yellow-headed blackbird. Males are brilliant and showy as they blow in the breeze atop a cattail. Their hilarious song reminds me of a cross between a model T horn that goes “ah-woo-gah” and a crowing rooster. Yellow-headed blackbirds are known as master weavers and their suspended nest is woven onto several cattail stalks that act as pillars to support the nest above the water where it is concealed in the vegetation. Ideal spots for viewing the yellow-headed or red-winged blackbirds are the Gypsum ponds or the marsh adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant in Edwards.
A common blackbird of parks and suburban areas is the Brewer’s blackbird. This bold bird struts on the ground with glistening black feathers sparkling with iridescent blue. The Brewer’s blackbird has a striking golden eyed contrasted with it clean black head which makes it easy to identify. This bird can likely be seen on the grounds of any local fast food restaurant during the warmer months. Nottingham Park is also a good place to see Brewer’s blackbirds.
If we were to drive a country lane through open farm fields in western Eagle County we’d surely hear the piercing melody of the western meadowlark. This beautiful bird commonly sits on a fence post and sports a colorful yellow throat and undersides making it rather conspicuous. Like other icterids, a large part of the meadowlark’s diet is insects, and it is often observed dropping from its fence post perch, and descending upon its unsuspecting prey, often a grasshopper.
Also nesting in the lower warmer climates of western Eagle County are several species of orioles. The strikingly beautiful orioles are known for bright orange and yellow colors set against deep black. The nests of orioles are unique in that they hang below a branch, often in a cottonwood tree, looking like a loosely woven satchel slung over the branch. Look for orioles in green areas with cottonwood trees from Eagle westward into Glenwood Canyon.
Early summer will mark the arrival of yet another relative, the brown-headed cowbird. This sight makes many bird lovers cringe because parasitic cowbirds secretly lay eggs in the nest of another species. The host bird treats the egg as one of her own, and upon hatching, the cowbird nestling grows quickly and out competes the other chicks for food. This affects the nesting success rate of many desirable songbirds. Cowbirds are common on bird feeders from early to mid-summer.
Blackbirds become familiar and easy to recognize once you get these few basic species under your belt. As you can see, whether you are near a marsh, working in a field, lounging in a grassy park, or sitting in the cool shade of a cottonwood tree, you are likely to be in the presence of an icterid.