For birders, Larimer Landfill full of treasures
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — I thought I might witness a landmark moment in Colorado birdwatching history at the Larimer County Landfill on a Saturday in March.
It was an overcast afternoon at the county’s 640-acre trash depository — basically hog heaven for gulls, which dine mostly on garbage. The fervent squawks of 400-some gulls intermingled with the distant beeps of dump trucks and scrapers.
I stood behind a tall telescope, two seasoned birders stationed beside me at their own scopes. Nick Komar, who leads birding tours around Colorado and has been birdwatching on five continents, agreed to take me out birdwatching at the landfill after I heard it was one of the best bird spots in northern Colorado. Joining us was Cole Wild, who traveled the state to spot 412 bird species in 2010 and co-authored a book about it with Nick.
I was in impressive company. If only I could get the hang of that telescope.
We were looking for a black-tailed gull — a Japanese bird similar to the ring-billed gulls that flock to the landfill by the thousands, but with an all-black tail and a darker gray mantle. Nick and Cole thought they’d spotted one among the crowd of birds that stood on a high ridge of dirt and rocks several hundred feet from us, preening and snacking on trash. In sharp focus through the eye of the telescope, the birds looked nearly life-size, and surprisingly elegant.
Birders have documented 499 bird species in Colorado. A black-tailed gull would make 500.
Gulls have the biggest presence at the landfill, but if you hang out there for an hour or two you’re also likely to see ravens, pigeons, crows, Canada geese and starlings. On another birding trip to the landfill, we spotted a streaked horned lark, a small bird that likes to fly low to the ground. Bald eagles and golden eagles are semi-regular occurrences.
They come for the trash. At night, they fly to Lake Loveland, Carter Lake or other places where they roost for the night.
Landfill staff members aren’t too pleased with the abundance of birds — most of them have been pooped on at one time or another, and when birds build up in an area staffers shoot blanks to scare them off.
“That’s good for about three minutes, and then they’ll come right back,” landfill director Stephen Gillette said.
And when they come back, birders like Nick and Cole are waiting, telescopes poised.
As I found out pretty quickly, waiting is a big part of birdwatching. So is attention to detail.
I wouldn’t have even noticed my favorite bird of the day if not for both. About 40 minutes into our birdwatching, Nick pointed my scope at a peculiar ring-billed gull, one of the most common birds at the landfill. They have pale gray wings, white bodies and yellow bills with a black ring near the end. In the winter, they get these funky gray spots on their heads that they shed come mating season.
But this ring-billed gull was different from the others — it had a wash of the palest pink across its neck and belly, a rare color that Nick said probably came from its diet. Dinner from the local Red Lobster dumpster, I wondered? More likely shrimp from Utah’s Great Salt Lake or somewhere similar, Nick said.
That pink-bellied bird was the only one we saw that day, and a rare find for Colorado. Look carefully, and you’ll probably find something new and interesting. How’s that for a life lesson learned at the landfill?
Twice, I asked Nick how on Earth he became so good at identifying birds by details that might seem imperceptible to the average person: eye color, size of spots on wing tips, bands on their beaks.
“Ten thousand hours,” he said both times, in a reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” philosophy that anyone can become an expert on anything after doing it for that long.
After about 90 minutes of birding, we spotted tons of ring-billed gulls and California gulls, plus some Thayer’s gulls, herring gulls, pigeons and ravens. We lost track of that possibly novel, maybe black-tailed gull, though, so my afternoon birding at the landfill won’t turn up in any history books.
Nick, dishing out the life lessons at every turn, remained optimistic.
“That’s the motivation to come out again another day,” he said after we’d packed up the scopes in his dusty red Honda CR-V.
“You never know what you’ll find.”
Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com
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