West Coast Expedition: Day One From 200 feet above sea level to 8,500 feet above sea level, Part One

Before I start this post, I want to make it clear that I have failed to write about a number of previous trips, and I will be posting them at a later time.

So, May 19, 2011, I have begun my eight day odyssey into beautiful southern California.  First, though, we will be stopping over in Denver, Colorado.  We have a family friend there, and she would like to do some birding, so to start the journey, I’m going to have a little CO birding!

Approx. 9:30 am

We have landed!!  Immediately, I am looking outside the plane and I am noticing some hawks.  Unfortunately, I can’t identify them.

Now, we are meeting the family friend at the baggage claim, and we are about to walk out to the parking lot.  In the parking lot, I am seeing House Sparrow (darn), Rock Pigeon (grrr…), European Starling (argh), and a Western Kingbird (woo-hoo!!!)  The Kingbird isn’t a lifer (I saw one at Bombay Hook NWR last year), but still a cool western bird.

Approx. 11:00 am

Now, we are driving up to our friend’s mountain house.  She is stopping at a few good parks along the scenic route, although the weather is overcast and drizzly.  Our first stop was Lair O’ the Bear Park.

Lair O’ the Bear has proved very productive.

As we entered the main trail, off in the nearby grassland area, I saw a brushy area.  There was a high amount of flitting inside of it, and, as I took a closer look, there was a Flycatcher species (so far unidentified, but most likely a lifer), multiple “Audubon’s” Yellow-Rumped Warbler (a western subspecies of the Yellow-Rumped Warbler), a Yellow Warbler, and Chipping Sparrow.

Then, we headed right where the trail branched in two, and along that found a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher and Song Sparrow.  This trail curved along a stream, and, my guess is that in nice weather, it would have attracted a good number of birds.  The trail led us through a meandering woodland habitat, eventually leading to another spot where it branched in two.

At this point, we were in a field setting, and you could really feel the wind.  The breeze brought along pelting bullets of a wintry mix (not rain and not snow, but in between), which didn’t make the excursion very enjoyable.

At the branch, we made a left, which took us through yet another wooded setting.  Here, there was an odd noise to be heard.  It was a very stately “chip”-like call, which was replied by the same call off in the distance.  As we approached the call, I noticed the bird.  It was a Flycatcher.  It was frequently bobbing its tail (by frequently I mean about twice a second, no exaggerations), and was moving about quite a bit.  It had olive upperparts with cream-color washed underparts (to my best recollection).  It is still unidentified, but it seems to closely resemble a Hammond’s Flycatcher.  If this is true, it would be the second lifer for the trip.

We continued up a bit, still in the unrelenting, poor weather.  Then, as if out of nowhere, there was a cricket-like buzzing noise.  Perched up on a branch above us was a female Hummingbird of some sort.  In my days, I have only seen one kind of Hummingbird, the Ruby-Throated.  In turn, this had to be a lifer.  The only Hummingbirds readily seen in this part of Colorado are the Black-Chinned Hummingbird and Broad-Tailed Hummingbird.  Since I only got a quick glimpse at the bird, and no photograph, I will have to leave it unidentified.

After the Hummingbird sighting, the weather started to get more intense, so we decided to head back to the car and drive on.  There was one last stop that our friend wanted to show me, regardless of the weather.  The next stop is to be O’Fallon Park.

The park was about a half an hour away from Lair O’ the Bear, and we were about to find out that it was worth the drive – and putting up with the poor weather!

The main section of O’Fallon was less coniferous forests and more grass, but as you got deeper, it converged back into the usual pine groves.  The park borders a small stream that, as with the stream at Lair O’ the Bear, would have attracted a good amount of birds on a nicer day.

As we pulled into the park, I noticed some more Audubon’s Warblers, as well as an American Crow, and a couple of Mallards and Geese.  Then, I spotted a blue bird.  Thinking that I was still in the east, I immediately thought that the bird was an Eastern Bluebird, and then quickly changed my frame of mind to western birds, and reevaluated the species as a Western Bluebird.  Sure enough, as I examined the bird more closely, it was a Western Bluebird.

Western and Eastern Bluebirds are not hard at all to tell apart.  If the range of the two doesn’t already tell you, there is one other identification tip that almost never fails.  The male Eastern Bluebird has a solid blue back.  This is not the case with the Western species.  Male Western Bluebirds have a chestnut patch below their nape, their most obvious field mark.

As we continued down the path, still in awful weather, there was a flock of finches.  A yellowish bird that stood out appeared to be a Goldfinch.  No closer inspection could be made, as the bird flew away at the first sign of us approaching.  I did catch a very quick glimpse, and in that time I saw that it looked like a Lesser Goldfinch.  With no proof that it wasn’t just an American, I decided not to count it as a lifer.

The males of both species are very easy to tell apart (not cutting myself any breaks, but in poor weather, and a second’s look, they aren’t).  Lessers have black only on their cap, wings, and tail.  Their backs are an olive-green color, and their breasts and stomachs are yellow.  The Americans, on the other hand, have black on their cap, wings, and tail, and yellow everywhere else.

After that, we continued in the freezing (no pun intended) weather.  All that were in front of us were Chipping Sparrows and American Robins.  At that point, the weather started to become very intolerable.  We decided to head back to the car and grab some lunch.

As we briskly walked to the car, I saw a small, gray bird that seemed like a sort of sparrow.  Upon closer inspection, the bird was a “Gray-Headed” Dark-Eyed Junco.  This is a Rocky Mountain region subspecies of the Dark-Eyed Junco.  As you can see in my (poor) photograph, it has an overall gray body, but black around its eye, and a chestnut patch below its nape. All of the Junco shots in previous posts have been “Slate-Colored” Dark-Eyed Junco, common to northern United States.

With the end of that last sighting, we headed back to the car to go get some lunch.  As we passed the creek at the entrance, I saw a Nuthatch.  There are only three types of Nuthatches to be found in Colorado – Red-Breasted, White-Breasted, and Pygmy.  I knew that it wasn’t the former two, so it had to be a Pygmy.

Out of the two, Pygmy Nuthatches resemble White-Breasted Nuthatches the most, although they still have very distinct differences.  There is not a single ounce of red on them, so there is no resemblance whatsoever with Red-Breasted Nuthatches.

Male White-Breasted Nuthatches are full of a multitude of vivid colors.  They have midnight black on their cap and nape leading down to around their shoulders, much of their wings, most obvious on their primaries, and on parts of their tail.  They have a light blue-gray color on their back (transitioning with the black on shoulders), mixed in with the black on their wings, and mixed in with the black on their tail.  Almost everywhere else on their body is white, with the exception of a very light rust color on their ventrals.

Male Pygmy Nuthatches have white on their throats and cheeks, leading all the way down to their stomach, where it changes into more of a gray color.  The rest of their body is a deep gray color, with the exception of some obvious black (and some white) on their primaries.

With that, there were no more new birds to be seen, and I swore I was getting some frostbite!

Finally, we got out of the park and on our way to lunch.  With two confirmed lifers so far today, I figure that I am doing well so far, but my birding day is now over because of the intense blizzard conditions, which would undoubtedly get worse as our altitude increased…

Personally, I think this subspecies of Junco is much more interesting than our "Slate-Colored" back at home

Although birded in poor weather, this small park high up in Colorado yielded a variety of birds new to me, being from Pennsylvania

This flycatcher was seen near Pine, Colorado on May 19th, 2011. It was frequently bobbing its tail (around two times a second, no exaggeration). Buffy-white front.

This flycatcher was seen near Pine, Colorado on May 19th, 2011. It was frequently bobbing its tail (around two times a second, no exaggeration). Buffy-white front.

At Lair O’ The Bear Park in Pine, Colorado

Much different from our "Myrtle" back home

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