Some people think that birds are sparse around the Vail Valley in the wintertime. However, it’s all in where you look. Set out on a bird watching trip intending to visit several unique habitats, and you will be rewarded with seeing the specialized species that live in each environment.
For instance, if we go to the Eagle or Colorado River with the intent to see birds, what birds would we see? In winter, bald eagles spend time perched in tall dead trees along the river or on stout limbs of cottonwood trees. Here they patiently wait for an opportunity to snatch a fish, a duck, or a small mammal. Of course, bald eagles are largely scavengers as well.
If we watched the river ice and smooth rocks at water level, we’d certainly see the antics of the American dipper. This plump little songbird frolics in the shallows gleaning aquatic insects from the rocks. Dippers also dive headfirst into swift current or into deep-water using their wings for propulsion to reach the food-rich bottom.
Also on the river we’d see wintering ducks such as common goldeneye, or green-winged teal. Common mergansers are year-round residents of the Colorado River and the lower Eagle River where they dive to depths to capture fish in their long thin serrated bills.
Now consider that on our drive to the river we passed through an arid environment with shrubs, pinions, and junipers graced by dramatic high cliffs and rock outcrops. This describes the habitat for golden eagles where they perch on high precipices and hunt mammals below. The vision of a golden eagle is so powerful that they can spot a ground squirrel from a mile away.
The pinion and juniper trees are also active with year-round residents. Members of the jay family, or Corvids are smart adaptable birds and have no trouble making a living throughout the winter. Listen closely, and you’ll smile at the laughing calls of the pinion jay, or wince at the grating cries of the Clark’s nutcracker. You’ll likely hear the croaks, gobbles, and caws of ravens. Surely the cackling of magpies could be heard in the distance. And all the while you may be spied upon quietly by a beautiful blue scrub jay.
Also present during wintertime in the pinion-juniper woodlands are several species of woodpeckers. Listen for the “peek!” contact call of hairy or downy woodpeckers, or the loud sharp “kleeer!” of the northern flicker. Listen for the “tap-tap-tap” of the woodpeckers as they glean insects and larvae from the tree bark.
If on your travels you stopped by a majestic stand of aspens, undoubtedly you’d hear the peeping and honking of nuthatches. These sprite little birds move about the trunks of trees gleaning insects from the bark with their fine thin bills. They often descend the tree headfirst and hang upside down below branches while foraging. Nuthatches live and forage in flocks and often pack themselves into a tree cavity at night to share their body heat.
Lastly, a visit to a high-elevation sub-alpine spruce and fir forest on snowshoes or cross-country skis should likely reveal the presence of red crossbills or pine grosbeaks, which are colorful finches that travel in flocks.
Birds in flocks tend to use lots of vocalizations to stay in contact with each other as they forage and move across a landscape. The flight call of crossbills sounds like, “jip, jip, jip” as they fly to the top of the their next cone-laden spruce. Pine grosbeaks, the largest and perhaps the most elegant of the finches tend to sing from the tip-top of a tree “purdy-purdy” or “purdalee-prue”.
The nice thing about recognizing voices of birds is that when your hear them, you often know which species they are before raising the binoculars. This gives you more time looking through the binoculars observing fascinating behavior, rather than focusing on seeing field marks for identification.
Of course, there are more winter birds than mentioned here. Important things to consider when bird watching are first, a willingness to be perfectly still and quiet so you can heighten your senses and closely observe your surroundings. Secondly, choose a route that will maximize diversity in habitats to ensure that you’ll see many different species of birds. Lastly, a telescope makes a big difference in observing fascinating bird behavior, and viewing up-close perfection in nature.
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.
Special two-day birding workshops are being offered to locals for $89. Field trip dates are May 26-27 and May 28-29. All ages welcome, space is limited to twelve participants per session. Contact Trailwise Guides at 827-5363.