Exploring Denver’s nature & birds at Washington Park

I went on a trip to Denver in early September and managed to find a little time to explore in nature. Of course, there is almost always nature and birds around you to find no matter where you are, but my biggest day was visiting Washington Park which is just south of the downtown core.

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Washington Park, Denver, CO

I saw two new species while I was at the park – very exciting – and quite a few others I appreciated, too. The highlight, though, were the American White Pelicans, a first for me! A group of about six pelicans floated on the lake much to my surprise. I’d taken a peek at what I might expect to see while in Denver, but I honestly never expected to see pelicans in the middle of a city park!

I imagine they must be a somewhat regular visitor there as no one else seemed to be half as interested in them as I was. Or maybe they just aren’t bird people. I’ve always wanted to see pelicans and here they were! I took some time to really watch them. Paddling on the water and hunting together in a cooperative group. I was amazed I could actually see the fish as they swallowed! Even just their immense size amazed me that a bird so big could fly. They just mesmerised me.

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American White Pelican

The other new bird I saw was a Snowy Egret! What a beautiful bird… similar to a Great Blue Heron, I watched him patiently stand in the water waiting for a fish to pass by, then darting his head forward suddenly to catch unsuspecting prey. Not far away, another egret perched on a branch overlooking the water. What a peaceful place to rest.

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Snowy Egret
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It was all about the waterbirds that day as I spied another heron in the same tree; a Black-crowned Night Heron. My first adult sighting; I’d only ever seen a juvenile before.

Another highlight was a Barn Swallow colony at the boathouse. There were more Barn Swallows than I think I’d ever seen before. I was wary of distracting or disturbing them in any way, so I watched from the sidelines, though they didn’t seem to mind people walking by. Their swooping and diving antics and chitter-chatter could entertain me for hours. Sometimes, I wish I could sprout wings and become a swallow just for one day.

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One of many Barn Swallows at the boathouse colony!

I felt so happy and grateful to see a colony doing well from what I could tell after the trials I’ve been through with the colony I monitored this summer in Victoria. It became quite difficult for me to watch quite a few of them die and not know if it was something natural or not. I’d even tried to rescue one and send it to rehab, but unfortunately, the little bird had been starving.

Its strange how the animal world is so beautiful and sorrowful in congruence; the opposing forces of life and death as constant forces of joy and new beginnings versus loss and endings. I guess it keeps us engaged and reminds us to be grateful for every minute.

There is a garden at the park which is a replica of Martha Washington’s garden at Mt. Vernon, which was uplifting. The garden was full of every colour imaginable; someone has tended it well and I don’t think my photos do it justice. The park is well worth a visit whether you are a Denver native or visitor from near or far.

I was quite taken by the little prairie dog communities strewn all over in random empty fields and lots off in the suburbs. I liked to imagine them as a happy family society, working together to dig tunnels and find food, alerting each other to danger, taking care of each other. It reminded me of a David Attenborough documentary in which prairie dogs faced a threatening snake and won, thus proving the underdog always has a chance.

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A prairie dog peeping his little head out to take a look! “Is it safe?” Sometimes I feel a little like this just leaving the house.

For someone who relishes quiet and solitude, I find there’s something I love about social animals and social birds. Some of my favourite animals and birds live in families, flocks or colonies for part of most of their lives: Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Purple Martins, Bushtits, ducks rafting together at sea, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, wolves, elephants and deer. I wonder what that says about me, if anything. Then again, I also dearly love solitary or paired animals like all kinds of wild cats (lions are the exception here), foxes, osprey, wrens, most woodpeckers, and of course hummingbirds.

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Denver, CO viewed from Red Rocks Ampitheatre

A quiet summer watching nestlings grow

Summer has been quiet, but busy somehow. I have a few other projects I’ve been working on and my bird-watching has been close to home for the most part with a couple exceptions.

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Scenes like this Western Tiger Swallowtail are few and far between now that we are in the depths of summer.

What was all green and lush and full of life in spring is now brown and golden with drought. This year marks the fourth summer in a row which has been a drought in Victoria. Yesterday it rained for the first time in months, but I don’t think it did much to alleviate conditions.

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This raccoon seemed to be feeling the heat on a hot morning

At least the roses in cultivated gardens do not seem to mind much, flowering still in beautiful, bright colours. Some songbirds, too, do not seem to mind, but I wonder how the hot weather affects them. House Finches and Bushtits have been abounding everywhere I go in little flocks, finches singing in berry bushes and bushtits gleaning insects off trees as they leap from branch to branch. I hope they can all find enough to eat.

Nests are busy places, too. At the osprey nest, I have still only seen one juvenile, but I am hopeful there is another there and I just keep missing it. Otherwise, I wonder what it means for the osprey if they only have one baby. Two years ago, they had three successful fledglings so I have high hopes for the family! I wonder if the hot, dry conditions somehow made it more difficult to rear all three young or if an egg or two was taken by a predator. I’ve seen the little one flapping his wings inside the nest a few times, strengthening the muscles and experimenting.

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Osprey with juvenile at the nest

I’ve been seeing more nesting birds this summer and I have been monitoring a Barn Swallow colony since their arrival in May. I watched as they buzzed about busily building and repairing nests, then watching and listening to the tiny babies in their nests. They grow up so fast; a mere week or so later, they have already left the safety of their nest and start flying.

I feel quite attached to them after watching them grow up and feel quite proud when I see the juveniles flying about on their own, but equally heartbroken when a few have not survived. My hope is that most of them can succeed despite the difficulties and threats they are faced with in today’s world. That goes for all the nestlings; birds have many obstacles to face in our constantly expanding world that makes me sometimes wonder if it will ever be enough for humanity? Or will we continue to crave for more? More money, more cars, more oil, more expansion, until we simply self-destruct?

But there is still beauty to be found. Last weekend, I found my first hummingbird myself! I’ve seen them pointed out by others before, but never seen an active one or found it on my own. I saw the little bird hovering around a tree with a bit of something in its beak and waited long enough to confirm my suspicions; she’s a breeding female as she landed in her nest.

Only seeing the nest in real life on a tree branch brings home just how tiny they are. She’s likely on at least her second brood of the year as Anna’s Hummingbirds start breeding early. It was quite exciting to find this and appreciate the pure beauty in something so small. Its moments like these that are like little beacons of light in the face of the destruction happening in the world. That the song and life of a single small hummingbird could mean so much is a good reminder of the beauty and love that persists.

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Anna’s Hummingbird nest

 

Summer’s ended, now comes the rain

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Although summer took its time in showing up this year, once it started, it was long, hot and dry. In just the last two weeks, temperatures have gone from 30 to 14. Fall has officially arrived with the first rainfall finally arriving after more than 50 consecutive days without rain. Before I know it, we’ll be getting October storms of wind and rain whipping through, but for now it makes for a nice change.

As I change from wearing shorts to pants, fall migration is already underway. I’m sad to see my favourite summer birds, namely the swallows and warblers (hmm and the Turkey Vultures…its so hard to choose) leaving, but excited for the different birds that may cross my path. I’m gearing up for possibly meeting some new birds, but also my old winter friends. Especially all the ducks! I just love ducks…

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taking off for flight

Looking back over my summer, though, I didn’t get out as much as I would have liked. I’m sad to say I didn’t go see my local Osprey nest more than a couple of times and I have no idea if they successfully mated or raised young this year. I think it was a by-product of being stuck working more than 40 hours most weeks and not getting reliable weekends off. Another stalling factor was my camera being out of commission for a couple of weeks getting repaired because I love photographing the osprey.

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my Dark-eyed Junco momma…
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White-crowned Sparrow (non-breeding)

I am not sure if my biggest disappointment is the Osprey nest I hardly visited or if the failure of my backyard nest is. Yes, the Dark-eyed Junco momma I watched building her nest for days back in June was unfortunately brought back to my door by none other than Amber…for the rest of the day, I watched another junco (presumably her mate) calling and calling, presumably for his lost mate. It broke my heart a little. No baby juncos and one more native bird gone.

It was a different kind of summer than all the nest-watching I got in last year. I met a lot of new birds out east as well as a few around here, and I got more confident at some of my identification skills. I learned the calls of the Golden-crowned Sparrow (“oh dear me”), the White-crowned Sparrow (“Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada”), the Common Yellowthroat (“witchity-witchity-witchity-wit” – the one I kept hearing but did not know which bird it belonged to for ages!), found a Wilson’s Warbler all on my own and learned how to differentiate the song of the Black-headed Grosbeak from an American Robin. Steady progress.

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Black-headed Grosbeak I spotted by its song

The more I bird, the more I realize I am much better at birding by sound than sight. I don’t have the best eyesight, but I am usually able to learn songs and calls and be able to remember who it belongs to (as long as I can actually find the bird when I hear it to match it up).

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Common Yellowthroat, small and likes to hide in the bushes!

 

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Savannah Sparrow I think I now feel confident identifying

So, I am still getting better and learning lots! I’ve come a long way from the early days. This week, I’ve seen my first American Pipit and Northern Harrier I was able to identify. I’m still learning, and looking back, this summer wasn’t as big a loss as it could have been despite the setbacks. I even got away on a couple of nice trips.

Nevertheless, I am hoping to get out more during the fall, especially with migration, and not miss out as much as I did this summer! A new job with regular hours and weekends should help my efforts. I’ve been working on learning gulls and raptors, and had the chance to spot shorebirds this summer, too. Please feel free to correct my IDs below if you have other thoughts! Its not always easy trying to totally self-teach myself birds, but there is also great satisfaction in finding and identifying them on your own…

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Savannah Sparrow I think I now feel confident identifying
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Western Sandpiper (non-breeding) – I think? seen in August
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Least Sandpipers with greenish legs distinguishing them, seen in August
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Glaucous-winged Gull with pink legs and grey wingtips

With fall, the birds are stocking up on high-calorie food like berries, preparing to migrate while others build up caches of food for the winter. Its strange that I am more excited for winter than I ever used to be since becoming a birder. With La Nina this year, its shaping up to be another cold and snowy one (well, for Victoria, anyway…), but the winter ducks and putting up my feeder again will make it easier to bear! For now, I say goodbye to summer and one of my favourite summer birds, the Purple Martin….

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Purple Martin

Finding a sanctuary of serenity in nature

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When I start feeling down, its time for a walk. Sometimes, I spend a lot of time thinking about why the world is the way it is and how it came to be that way. I think about all the worst things; people who cheat and lie, who corrupt and take advantage of others. The way the world revolves around money, the fragmentation of the habitats with cookie-cutter houses and cement. I start to hate the very pavement I am walking on and again, that part of me wonders if I could just run away and leave it all behind. I wonder if I am the only person who thinks this way. Why does everyone else seem to just accept the world as it is?

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I go to the beach, where I can watch birds and feel the sun and listen to the leaves swishing in a gentle breeze and lose myself in nature. At least for a little while. It helps me forget the imbalances and injustices.

I can see the simplest beauty that we are surrounded by in nature. Its so much better than the manufactured thing. When I reach the beach, a lone Great Blue Heron stands on the shoreline. He looks small somehow with his neck is hunched down as he stands still, then lurches forward to catch a fish every now and again. And for a while, its just him and me.

In the distance, I can hear bald eagles making noise at their nearby neighborhood nest. Just as I am about to go check them out, I see a swirl in the water and a head pops up. Its a river otter. Then, another head surfaces and I stop to watch the pair for a while. Off to my right, I notice a large crevice in the rocks I’d never seen before and I wonder if they take refuge and nest there or not.

I watch them for a while as they bob up and down, swishing their long tails and head towards the rocks before turning back again and swimming away out of sight. I move on to the bald eagle nest, where the juvenile is perched on a branch alone; the parents must have just left. I head down to the nearby beach and sit on a rock.

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my Purple Martin pair

Suddenly, a pair of Purple Martins start circling low in the air around me, making me a centrepiece. I am amazed to be so close to one of my favourite birds and I watch them, enraptured. But soon I start to worry I am stressing them if they have a nest nearby (though I see no nestboxes or even good-looking spots for them nearby), so I move away and give them space, just in case.

I find a bald eagle parent across the water, perched on a rock. He returns to the nest, then comes back again. There’s a rush of emotions that comes with watching. As the bald eagle parent leaves the nesting tree and flies low over the beach, the purple martin pair chatters loudly, perhaps agitated, and fly in circles, swooping and diving. Is this to distract a predator from their nest or to warn their young? I don’t know, but it seems somehow connected. Black Oystercatchers chitter and fly away in a tight group and ravens squawk and dive-bomb the eagle as soon as it perches atop a tree.

Its funny to think all of this happens within a mere few moments as one bird flies out to fish. Does anyone else take notice or I am watching my own private nature documentary? I want all of them and their young to survive; I can’t possibly pick sides. They each have a value and a purpose in the balance of nature, predator and prey.

In the quiet morning, with just the gentle swish of waves and the sound of the birds, the serenity is contagious. In between, the moments of action are exciting. Sometimes, I wish these moments could last forever.

 

A different kind of post: some ramblings of the inner mind…

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Even on a cloudy day, Hobbiton looks a most appealing place to live a life in peace, surrounded by green grass, trees and cozy homes.

“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” – Gildor, The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

Solitude. The woods. Silence. Golden. Words that run through my head. Sometimes I fantasize about running away to the woods. Living in a cabin. Off the grid. In harmony with nature, lush green trees surrounding me and the singing of birds to wake me as the sun lights up the room. Just me and my partner and my cat in the quiet and the calm, living slow and peaceful lives…wanting to fence the world out (like a hobbit).

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To live beneath the earth, below a grand tree, to look out on a garden abounding with life!

“You cannot always be torn in two. [Frodo told Sam] You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.” – The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien

Other times, I feel the fire of the unjustness I see around me and I want to fight. To stand up and say: this is wrong, you are wrong, this is unjust. The system is corrupt. How can we fix it? What can I do? If I do nothing, will nothing change? But I feel so small.

How do I choose between the two halves and find balance? Like a hero of mine, I think of “Ultimate freedom. […] No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.” (Chris McCandless, Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer)

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Did Chris McCandless feel as immensely small as I did at the Grand Canyon? I was amazed at its never-ending reach and well, you couldn’t put it better, grand size. It is a place I will never forget!

But I think, too, of another hero who said “We have the choice to use the gift of our life to make the world a better place–or not to bother.” (Jane Goodall) and I wonder is it ever enough? What I try to do to make the world better. Do I give enough every day, or does the exhaustion of the 9-5 overwhelm the soul until I become like all the other capitalistic monkeys driving to work and coming home and doing it all again every day?

How do we choose? How do you choose? Do you ever think about the world in such a way or am I alone in these ramblings? In times of these immensely overanalytical, over-sensitive and self-indulgent(??) thoughts, the beauty of nature helps find my center of balance.

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The cheerful robin reminds me to always slow down to enjoy nature (even in the city), to always enjoy and treasure the little, lovely moments.

In watching a wild bird sing and dance and forage for food, I feel at once, connected to the world around me. Rooted to the ground beneath my feet. And yet, I feel free and entranced completely in watching, ignoring all other sounds, movements and people. Perhaps completely vulnerable to surprise, but centered on that one bird brings me more peace and clarity than anything else might.

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Remember to rise above and be the best self you can be. Treasure the little moments of joy, immerse yourself in nature when you can and be kind to one another (whether they have 4 legs or 2!).