A spring snowstorm pounded the roadways for most of my white-knuckle drive to Barr Lake State Park the morning of April 21, while my 13-year-old daughter, Natalie, slept peacefully in the passenger seat. I had awakened her early in the morning with the promise of live raptors and kite flying at the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies’ 30th-anniversary celebration. The weather caused the Kite Festival celebration to be canceled, but plenty of birders still showed up at Barr Lake to check out some raptors and support 30 years of work by the Bird Conservancy
Soon after arriving, Natalie and I ventured into the Barr Lake Nature Center and were engaged in fun activities. Natalie made a bird feeder out of a pine cone, shortening, and seeds while I explored the many tables with interesting bird displays. We stopped by the Bird Conservancy table and learned lots of cool bird facts, like how a woodpecker’s tongue wraps around its skull and protects the bird’s brain while it hammers on trees for insects. A volunteer told Natalie the NFL is studying the birds to see if they can offer insights into designing helmets that protect players’ brains.
We also learned about the Bird Conservancy’s work placing geolocators on the backs of black swifts to find their migratory nesting grounds. These secretive birds make their nests on sheer cliffs and behind waterfalls and have been hard for scientists to track. Bird Conservancy biologists were able to measure light cycle data from the geolocators and determine where the birds had been over the past 12 months. It turns out, many of the black swifts in Colorado actually have nests in Brazil and Paraguay.
Natalie and I found a front row seat for the live raptor presentation at 9:30 a.m. Emily Davenport from Nature’s Educators told the group we should be very quiet because the raptor she was about to bring out “can hear your heart beating from inside its kennel.”
It was a great-horned owl. Davenport told us interesting facts about him. How he was hit by a car and lost an eye, which is why he couldn’t be released back into the wild. How his tufts “aren’t ears, and scientists aren’t exactly sure what they’re for, but they know the owls use them for communication.” And we learned that one of his ears is smaller and asymmetrical than the other, contributing to the owl’s ability to locate prey underneath Colorado snow.
Then they brought out a Swainson’s hawk. Every fall, these hawks leave Colorado and travel 8 to 12,000 miles, as far south as Argentina following their favorite food, grasshoppers. Davenport said the hawks come back to Colorado around April 15, although we haven’t seen too many so far this year. When they migrate, they follow thermals in what looks like a swirling black cauldron with hundreds of birds. This is why a migrating group of Swainson’s hawks are called a “kettle.”
We learn that Swainson’s hawks can digest bones, so they bring up a “cast” of fur instead of a pellet-like an owl that includes the bones.
After the presentation, Natalie and I decided to hike a bit on the trail around Barr Lake, even though it was still snowing quite hard. We were rewarded with lots of wildlife. We saw a small herd of deer, pelicans, red-wing blackbirds, geese, ducks, cranes, and even a bald eagle that took flight from the top of a tall tree as we approached from the Fox Meadow Trail.
We returned to the nature center in time for coffee and tea from Birds and Beans and a good seat for the Bird Conservancy’s 30th-anniversary presentation, Nelda Gamble Award and guest speakers.
Bird Conservancy of the Rockies Board member Yvette Martinez presented Chairman Larry Modesitt was with the Nelda Gamble Volunteer of the Year Award for his many years of dedicated service.
CPW Director Bob Broscheid spoke to the group afterward, saying, “Conservation is about passion, commitment, and dedication. I’d like to personally thank every volunteer for what you do. At the Bird Conservancy, people stand out as part of the solution.”
Then Bird Conservancy of the Rockies Executive Director Tammy VerCauteren thanked CPW for its help with bird banding and for “helping us take our monitoring to 15 states around the U.S.” Vercauteren said CPW had helped with BCOR’s private land conservation and had invested in their first biologist for the Prairie Partners Program.
Natalie and I wrapped up the day with lunch provided by the Bird Conservancy: burritos, nachos, and cupcakes topped with pictures of birds.
The snow finally stopped as we were eating and gathering our things for the drive back to Colorado Springs. Natalie stayed awake this time for the drive back. The whole way, it seemed we were pointing at the birds we spotted in the fields beside the highway, our senses awakened to all the wildlife in the sky around us.
Year of the Bird
2018 marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” Learning more about birds in your area is a great way to participate in the Year of the Bird. Find out how you can participate and take the Bird Your World Pledge.