Ten Coolest High-Country Birds

Filed in Birding, Expert Articles by on November 12, 2013

TWG_story_birding17imgSummer birding in the Vail Valley is as diverse as its landscapes. No matter where you find yourself recreating, there are beautiful birds to be seen if you keep a keen eye out, and know where to look. Remember, each habitat hosts different birds, so think ahead about what you are likely to see, and then look in the right spots to see the magic come alive.

1. The golden eagle is the mightiest of raptors in North America. Weighing about twelve pounds, this predator can really pack some wallop when striking at high speed. Golden eagles utilize their seven-foot wingspan to ride on rising hot air thermals or wind currents. From a high vantage point, they can spot prey the size of a ground squirrel from a full mile away. Golden Eagles squeeze their long piercing talons repeatedly to dispatch prey such as rabbits, marmots, and even the babies of deer, antelope, and bighorns can fall prey to these skilled hunters. The hooked bill is used to tear meat. Look for golden eagles perched on desert cliffs.

2. The hermit thrush is a very gentle bird, and is the most musical of our summer birds. Like their cousin, the American robin, hermit thrushes are among the first to sing at the very first light of day, and the last to sing their flute-like melody just before dark. Hermit thrushes live in pines, spruces, and firs, where they hunt insects. Often you’ll see them on the ground snapping up bugs, or fluttering around in the forest catching insects in mid-flight.

3. The black-billed magpie is the most likely of birds to see around town. Magpies are striking birds with a black on white tuxedo look, with a sparkle of green and blue iridescence in its feathers. Magpies are closely related to ravens and crows, and like their cousins, they are very smart and therefore have an easy time making a living. Magpies are playful and social with others. Magpies build bulky stick nests the size of a beach ball high in cottonwood trees or large stout shrubs.

4. The Clark’s nutcracker is a loud squawky bird that is known to store thousands of seeds and nuts for use during lean times. Clark’s nutcrackers are common in lower elevations in areas with Douglas fir, juniper, and pinyon pine. Look for flashes of black and white while in flight. They often travel in pairs. Clark’s nutcrackers are related to jays, and like their cousins, are year-round residents of the Vail Valley. The first specimen was collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition, and is named for William Clark.

5. The Western Tanager is the most colorful of our summer birds. Tanagers are insect eaters and usually work in shrub communities and along river courses. They can be found wherever insects thrive. Tanagers can also be spotted perched on wires or in aspens or cottonwoods where they drop down on insects below or catch them in flight.

6. Mountain bluebirds are the bluest of birds. Their striking color stands out against the greenery as they flutter around shrubs, and drop from low perches, power lines, or fences on insects below. Also, observe bluebirds carefully and you may catch a glimpse of their close cousin, the Western bluebird that has a rusty colored breast.

7. Ruby-crowned kinglets are tiny birds with loud voices. While walking through a pine forest, if you hear a bird in the treetops singing, “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger,” you’ve found the ruby-crown kinglet. Kinglets are hard to see because they forage high in treetops for tiny insects and larvae that hide amongst the needles and twigs. It is possible to observe them employing a technique, much like a hummingbird, where they hover in flight at the tips of branches to glean insects from hard-to-reach places.

8. The American kestrel is a small colorful falcon that hunts mice and insects. They can often be seen perched on power lines, where they patiently wait for opportunities to present themselves below. Like other falcons, their bill is specially shaped to bite the neck of their prey to deliver a lethal snap.

9. The peregrine falcon is the fastest of all birds capable of attaining speeds of over 200 miles per hour in a dive with its wings tucked tightly to its sides. Peregrines hunt other birds by taking them by surprise with such speed and force that their prey never sees them coming. Look for peregrines perched or soaring around high cliffs. Like other falcons, peregrines have swept back wings in soaring flight, and are fast flyers.

10. The yellow-headed black bird can be found on cattail ponds. The song of this bird during mating season sounds something like an ah-woo-gah horn on an old jalopy. Watch for this bird’s cousin, the red-winged blackbird in similar habitats around ponds. The yellow-headed blackbird builds a nest woven from rushes suspended on stalks of dense pond vegetation like a home perched on piers.

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.

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