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

 

Home again on familiar ground at sea level: some shorebirds and swallows

Being home again on Vancouver Island means being surrounded by the sea again…just how I like it! I love the mountains for the green expanse of trees, the varying landscape and little lakes, but there’s something about the sea that draws me like so many humans before me. The first time I saw the ocean at 18, I was amazed by its sheer expanse and the rolling of the waves on the shore. In short, it was everything I always dreamed of.

I’m lucky to live where I am and I try to enjoy the local shore as much as possible while I can. Spring was well underway when we returned with new flowers were blossoming upon our return.

I saw, once again, a large group of birds far from the shore all clustered together. I’d seen them twice just before we left and could not work out what they were. The distance from shore certainly didn’t help. They were black and white with distinct white patches around their eyes.

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Long-tailed Duck far from shore stretching the limits of my camera’s zoom!

 

Yesterday, at last, I worked it out – they’re diving seaducks, the Long-tailed Duck! To add to the confusion, they were previously called Oldsquaw. I guess I found the downside to buying used field guides. As a beginner, I was uncertain as some of the population range maps I’d seen didn’t include the Long-tailed Duck in my region, or only “rare” or in winter. However, I’ve seen others report them in the area as well, which is reassuring.

Now that I know them, they are quite distinct. As I watched them, they all dove  underwater at once, moving as one fishing unit. It was really quite fascinating! They breed in the Arctic and winter further south (though every map I look at is different), so I suspect they were passing through on their way north.

Despite another early spring this year, the wintering-over Buffleheads are still in town. I had expected them to move on before I returned, but I suspect they won’t linger much longer. I’ll miss these little ducks but I look forward to their return again in the winter.

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Bufflehead (male)
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These female Buffleheads I managed to photograph while landing reminded me a bit of the courting display of the grebe.

I spotted two Marbled Murrelets, a new species for me and I knew they were a murrelet right away by their body shape and size, though at first glance from afar my first thought was loon. The distinguishing feature, for me, is the neck is white all the way to the nape.

This seabird, a relative of the puffin, breeds along the cost of the Pacific Northwest up to Alaska. Interestingly, unlike other seabirds, they nest far from the coast in the branches of old-growth conifer trees and are threatened by the loss of old-growth forests.

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Marbled Murrelet

Swallows are some of my favourite birds and I get very excited anytime I see them. The way they dive and flit about so quickly while feeding in the air is so entertaining  and interesting to observe. It makes it very difficult to photograph them, however and I just managed to get one good photo of this Barn Swallow I saw the other day.

I didn’t see any before I left on my trip, so I guess they returned from South America to breed while I was away. Barn Swallows have, overall, adapted well to human occupation and now almost exclusively nest in man-made sites where they previously nested in caves.

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Barn Swallow mid-flight with distinct forked tail

Finally, I happily watched a Black Oystercatcher quietly foraging among the rocks for mussels and other intertidal shellfish while being badgered and followed by a crow on the shore. As if they don’t have enough to face with loss of good habitat and pollution. I almost never see oystercatchers alone and, sure enough, once I looked around I found another just downshore.


Resources
Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds Pages on the Long-tailed Duck, Marbled Murrelet, Barn Swallow and Black Oystercatcher