One great thing about bird watching is that you can enjoy it while you’re doing other activities such as hiking, biking, fishing, or sight seeing. Taking a bird watching trip to the river is worthwhile to view the wide diversity of birds. Some of these birds are year-round residents, but some birds are only passing through, and now is the best time of year to see migrating species.
One of my favorite birds of the river is the great blue heron. Herons quietly wade in the shallows in search of fish. The heron is about three feet tall, with very long legs, large body, and long neck with a yellow spear-like bill. Its color is bluish-gray, with black and rusty highlights. Black feather plumes drape down the back of its head. In flight, the heron’s six-foot wingspan is impressive with slow, steady flapping. Sighting this pre-historic looking bird makes it easier to imagine that birds are descendents of dinosaurs. Find these magnificent herons nesting now at the Gypsum Ponds.
Another great bird to see at the river is the belted kingfisher. This bird plunges head first into the water to nab fish and other prey with its sharp stout bill. Kingfishers conspicuously perch along side of the river, where they closely watch the water for movement. The kingfisher measures about 13 inches in length, is gray-blue in color, with a shaggy head crest, a white band around its neck, and an oversized bill.
The river also attracts insect eating birds. Watch the willows and other shrubs near the river course for tiny flitting bright yellow warblers. Warblers arrive as insects become more plentiful with warmer weather. The yellow warbler is the most common here, and they flit constantly while gleaning insects that are buzzing around within the wind protected shrubs.
Aquatic insects play into the diet of the American dipper. The plump little gray birds bob up and down on rocks near water level, dive into running water, and swim duck-like on the surface. The American dipper is an interesting aquatic bird that does not have webbed feet. Instead, the dipper is equipped with powerful wings that it uses underwater, as if it were “flying”, to get to the river’s bottom to glean aquatic insects and larvae. You’ll often see a dipper reach near its tail with its bill to spread oil from a special gland which helps keep the dipper’s feathered shell waterproof and breathable.
Not all birds are as lucky as the dipper when it comes to water repellency. The feathers of the double-crested cormorant lack water repellency, so this bird is often seen on a rock or tree on the riverbank drying its spread out wings in the sun. The cormorant is a large dark colored aquatic bird with a yellow face and long bill with a down-curved hook at the tip. Powerful legs and large webbed feet enables the cormorant to dive to great depths to capture fish. Cormorants are migrating through, and are most likely to be seen in deeper sections of the Eagle River in western Eagle County, or in Glenwood Canyon.
Then of course, there are ducks. Learn to distinguish diving ducks from dabbling ducks. Diving ducks completely disappear under the water, and may not be seen again for about thirty seconds. In this time, they can swim to depths of twenty feet to capture fish. Diving ducks must run across the surface of the water in order to take flight, whereas dabblers can blast straight into the air without a runway. One of my favorite diving ducks is the common merganser. This year-round resident at a glance may look like a mallard. Like the mallard, the male merganser has a brilliant green head, but differs in that the sides of its body are completely white, he lacks the white neck ring, and his bill is bright orange and pointy. One of the best ways to distinguish mergansers from mallards is to look at the accompanying female. The striking female has a fun looking hairdo that sticks up like she’s having a bad hair day. Mergansers, like other diving ducks, sit lower in the water when compared to the buoyancy of dabbling ducks.
The best example of a dabbling duck, or puddle duck, is the mallard. Mallards do not dive, but instead tip up with their heads reaching under the water to the shallow bottom and their rear ends sticking up in the air. Mallards have bright orange legs that are highly visible when they are tipped up, and are useful in quick identification. Dabbler’s diets differ from divers in that they are usually feeding on aquatic vegetation, insects, and invertebrates, which are found in shallow waters or ponds.
Lastly, the osprey is a raptor that hunts fish in a spectacular aerial dive in which it plunges feet first to grab a fish with its talons. The osprey is white and black overall, and is the most likely hawk-like bird to see flying over the water. With a five-foot wingspan, osprey are powerful birds that carry away sizable fish to a nearby perch where it tears the flesh for eating with its hooked bill.
The river is habitat for many magnificent birds. If you’re a careful observer, you can see a wide variety of species in one location. Remember to scan the surface of the water, the shore, the shrubs, the trees, and the air. As long as we have healthy streams and rivers which produce quality food sources, Eagle County will continue to host a great diversity of birds throughout the seasons.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.