04 April 2009

Fallout!

These past few days have hosted some of the worst Spring weather I've ever seen in Western Colorado. Winds have been howling through the valley, and storm after storm has rolled through. Yesterday's rains were a record breaking amount, and last night's storm coated half of the mountains in snow down to the valley level. So, on this cold and windy morning I picked up Sean McKee for his first day of birding and ventured out to Highline Lake State Park. This is the best decision I have made in a long time.

Just pulling into the park, I spotted the first good bird of the day - a Long-billed Curlew! This was the first Western Colorado Curlew I had seen away from the western desert's breeding haunts of this species and made sure I got Sean on the bird as it flew east, never to be seen again. I smiled at our good fortune and went down to the mudflats to see if there were any good shorebirds out and about today. Unfortunately, the lake level had been raised about five feet, destroying all mudflats for the shorebirds. I shook my head, and looked around the lake. Two Osprey circled in the dark sky, and about three distant loons seemed to be prowling through the water. A flock of ducks flew over, and I had a suspicion that they were Redheads but didn't get a good view. A Eurasian Collared-Dove flew around a boat launch, and Sean noticed the loon out on the lake. Being his first time birding, he asked about it and I took a look through the binoculars to make sure. It was a loon, but behind the bird was a large raft of birds. I thought they were loons, but shook my head a little - loons don't travel in groups that big.

We loaded back into the truck and headed over to the far shore. There, we found the group of ducks I had seen before - 45 Redheads and 6 Bufflehead. I was surprised that my guess was right. In around the ducks were several Western Grebes, and a fairly cooperative Clark's Grebe. As I was pointing out the birds to Sean, four loons began to approach us very closely.


I managed to snap this decent Common Loon pic through my window. As we glanced out across the lake though, my suspicion was confirmed - the raft of birds was loons. So we drove up farther to try to determine how many loons there really were on the lake. we were distracted en route by a giant mass of swirling birds, at least 170 Sandhill Cranes. They drifted lazily through the thermal and shot northwest towards Idaho and Northern Utah. As they departed, Sean and I continued up the road to a pull out to count the loons. Up around the corner was yet another raft of these impressive birds. I quickly started counting, and came out at 87 loons just within sight at the moment. I quickly called Larry Arnold to ask him if a flock this big was significant, and sure enough, according to his records, the largest flock ever in Western Colorado was at the exact same spot almost twenty years ago and numbered a mere 47 individuals. Before I knew it, Larry was on his way out to see it for himself. While waiting for him, we then proceeded on to Mack Mesa Reservoir just above Highline. There, a Northern Harrier drifted over the marsh, two Common Mergansers hugged the shore, and about 8 Red-Breasted Mergansers sat in the middle of the lake. A Double-crested Cormorant flew in, and it wasn't long until we spotted two loons at this lake too. One bird was diving intermittently near the fishing pier and another bizarre bird was flying loops around the lake, giving a great opportunity to study a loon in flight. It wasn't long until we drove down to meet Larry near our loon overlook, and started counting the other birds there. The only other birds on the lake were about 8 Canada Geese and 23 Double-crested Cormorants. When we arrived at our rondezvous, a Clark's Grebe and some Western Grebe's were up close and personal between us and the Common Loon horde. Soon, Larry arrived and with him, the gulls. Four Ring-billed Gulls arrived out of the south, and they were very soon joined by two Franklin's Gulls. After showing Larry everything we had found, Sean and I decided to head out. As we were leaving, though, I spotted some more ducks flying in from the south, circling down and dropping into the lake. I grabbed my binoculars to see what the were. Lo and behold, more loons. At the time we left, we had counted 92 Common Loons on the lake. It was incredible.

After Highline, Sean and I headed out to Horsetheif to see what was out and about. Though we did not reapeat our amazing success from before, we had two Bald Eagles and two more Osprey. What happened at Highline was truly remarkable though, and goes to show that bad weather really does equal good birds in migration.

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