Castlewood Canyon Birding Adventure

Birding team at viewing station 6
All photos by © Doug Skinner/CPW.
YOTB_stacked_KThe day after Governor John Hickenlooper declared 2018 the Year of the Bird in Colorado, I had the good fortune to join a group of birders that included CPW Resource Stewardship Program Coordinator Jeff Thompson and CPW Volunteer Karen Metz at Castlewood Canyon State Park. Beginning at sunrise, our group traveled to 13 different birding stations – each station associated with specific habitats – and spent exactly eight minutes at each location to survey what birds were present. Thompson and Metz do this survey work together three times each year and the work has been informing park management for the last eight years.

Thompson explained that the early survey done in mid-May helps identify migratory species in the park and the beginnings of the breeding season. Today’s survey on June 8 is almost exclusively for breeding data. And then the late June survey will provide confirmation of the breeding data already collected.

“We’re also looking for fledglings,” Thompson said. “By then, the species you’ll see for the season are locked in. We take this info, pull data from eBird and our Raptor Monitoring Program, and put together a snapshot of what this year looks like.”

The experience of being a newbie birder out with these seasoned experts in territory they knew well was one of the most rewarding hikes I’ve ever been on. I made it a point to follow Metz’s eyes and footsteps, pausing with her as she looked into the sky, trying my best to see and hear along with her. She shared her knowledge about what kinds of birds nest on the ground in this area, a gentle reminder to watch where I step. She smiled at the calls she heard, cupping her hands to her ears as she soaked in the many sounds floating on the air. Two cliff swallows came darting through and she gave a laugh.

“The ultimate challenge,” she said with a smile.

Karen Metz glasses for birds.
As the sun rises, Karen Metz begins visual identifying birds from the first monitoring station.

Metz told me she got started birding in New Hampshire before she moved to Colorado in 1998.

“We moved to a new house and I was watching eastern bluebirds every day,” she said. “Then I just started to notice other birds. It was sheer beauty that drew me in.”

I could relate. It was my first glimpse of the flame-like western tanager in my yard a few months back that really awakened my desire to know more about the birds outside my front door and beyond.

At each stop, CPW Resource Stewardship Technician Anna Nakae would start the timer and begin recording the calls and sightings from Thompson and Metz on sheets she carried on a clipboard.

“American goldfinch, flight call,” Thompson said.

“I’ve got a western wood-pewee singing and towhees in two directions,” Metz said.

“Cliff swallow calling,” Thompson said. “They sound like static. Like somebody blowing raspberries, a little,” he said.

“Common yellow throat singing,” Metz said. “They have a different dialect here.”

Recording Sights Sounds
Anna Nakae records bird sightings and sounds.

These little details made all the difference for me in learning to differentiate the cacophony of calls I was hearing.

On a short hike into one of the 13 monitoring locations, Metz told me, “Prairie falcons are our special raptor breed at Castlewood Canyon. They’re very sensitive to human presence. And we’re seeing their breeding success decline. They’re not producing as much young. They’ll always be attracted to the cliffs here. But whether they feel safe enough to successfully breed is the question.”

Prairie falcons
A pair of Prairie falcons spotted at Castlewood Canyon State Park.

Thompson explained that these bird surveys help provide park managers with more information when trying to balance the needs of wildlife with the needs of humans.

“It helps us ask the question, ‘What is a sustainable use of the park?’” Thompson said. “These surveys help us put bird numbers and trends against parks visitors and look for correlations.”

Thompson pointed to the ovenbird as an example of a bird who helps guide park management decisions. Since the ovenbirds prefer small stands of oak trees with adequate spacing between them, park staff performed fuel mitigation efforts with the goal of also keeping good habitat for the ovenbirds. The monitoring efforts are a good tool to tell staff whether their effort was successful.

At our final monitoring location near the dam at Castlewood Canyon, the group spies a lazuli bunting that I cannot get a visual on, no matter how hard I try.

“It’s quite lovely,” Metz said. “It’s what we call a target bird. Quite colorful.”

As everyone else in the group made animated noises about the beauty of the bird, I struggled and failed to get a visual. As our day together came to an end, I wondered if I was really cut out for birdwatching.

Bitten by the Birding Bug

The next day, I decide to go on a morning bird hike around my house, and, what are the odds, I think I see a lazuli bunting at a feeder. I’m not sure, so I take Thompson’s advice to record the song with my iPhone. When I compare the recording with a lazuli bunting call online a few hours later, I find that they’re a perfect match.

It’s a small victory, but I am proud nonetheless. A little later, I manage to visually identify a white-breasted nuthatch.

Suddenly I feel like I’m a member of a club that walks around with its ears and eyes open, at least a little wider, to the natural world. I know, without a doubt, that my ability to perceive the natural world has been expanded.

Now I hear a crow and the voice of Metz sounds in my head as if we’re still working on a survey, “American crow calling.” I’ve been bitten by the birding bug, I guess. I suddenly realize that now I’m on a personal bird survey that never really ends. I guess it’s how all birders must feel.

Interested in birding at Castlewood Canyon? Download Birds of Castlewood Canyon State Park for a list of birds, viewing tips and responsible birding guidelines.

Written by Travis Duncan. Duncan is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

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