Here’s what to know about birdwatching in Summit County
Summit County is nestled in US Forest Service land, making it a mecca for spotting wildlife
As seasons change in Summit County, so do the activities its residents and visitors enjoy. In the winter and spring, people are hauling their downhilling gear or snowshoes but come summer, they trade their ski boots for hiking shoes.
Still, there’s one underrated activity that the people of Summit County can do all year round. Birdwatching doesn’t offer the same adrenaline rush but there is a small thrill in finally spotting some of the county’s most abundant wildlife in their natural habitat.
What to look for
Perhaps the best person to ask about birdwatching in Summit County is Karn Stiegelmeier, who will soon become chair of the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to help maintain about a quarter-million acres of federally designated wilderness in Eagle and Summit counties.
In college, Stiegelmeier took an ornithology class at University of Colorado where she was first introduced to birdwatching. She quickly grew to enjoy it.
“I think once you really start to look at birds and appreciate the colors and the songs and the different behaviors, you kind of get hooked and want to look at them,” she said.
During Summit County’s winter months, Stiegelmeier said some of the most exciting birds to keep watch for are bald eagles. Finding them can be a little tricky, but Stiegelmeier said there are a few nests around the county that seem to be close to common knowledge. Those include a nest near the wastewater treatment plant in Silverthorne and one near Heeney by Green Mountain Reservoir.
“(Those) are interesting because I remember doing our bird count — I think it was 20 years ago, might it might have been a little less — and we just didn’t have bald eagles back then,” Stiegelmeier said. “The two of us on our bird count saw a bald eagle, and so we had the best hit, whereas now, they’ve been around for years, they are doing really well, (and) they are really easy to see. They are so spectacular.”
Other birds that can be spotted this time of year include woodpeckers, chickadees and ravens.
How to find them
To start your search, Stiegelmeier and longtime Summit resident Richard Seeley both recommended visiting bodies of water. In the summer, the Dillon Reservoir is a mecca for birdwatching but during the winter months, rivers and creeks are good places to check out, too.
Both said wastewater treatment plants are unexpected, but good, places to find Summit County’s birds, because the water nearby stays warm year-round from the plant. They warned that residents should be cautious about visiting these spots because they aren’t meant for recreation. But those who look closely and carefully may be rewarded with a beautiful sight.
Seeley said one of his favorite spots to birdwatch is at one of the osprey nests outside of Silverthorne.
“The osprey nest is on a big, tall pole — I think it’s about 30 feet off the ground, it’s on a platform — and the osprey come in around April, and it’s fantastic to watch them raise their family,” Seeley said. “I would say it’s always exciting to see how things go with them because it isn’t always a successful nest.”
Do your research
Seeley doesn’t necessarily consider himself a birdwatcher, per se. Instead, he thinks of himself as a wildlife photographer. It’s not necessarily seeing a bird that gives him a thrill but rather capturing a clear photo of a bird in flight.
To help him perfect his craft, Seeley said he’s become something of a naturalist over the years. When he’s not out with his camera, he’s usually researching as much as he can about Summit County’s wildlife to improve his chances of finding something spectacular. He recommends doing the same to those interested in picking up a similar hobby, mostly so they can identify what it is they are seeing.
David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest, said that amateur birdwatchers should also bring a few pieces of gear with them, too. A pair of binoculars is a must, in addition to some kind of manual, digital or hard copy, that can help you identify a bird.
“The apps are really cool because you can reference the songs and calls really fast, too” Boyd said. “You think you might have heard this species but you’re not sure, you can play the call to yourself and say ‘oh yeah, that’s what it was,’ or ‘oh no, that’s not what it was,’ so that’s really helpful. But otherwise, if you don’t have an app, get a bird book to help you out.”
- Bald eagles
- Hairy woodpeckers
- Downy woodpeckers
- Black-capped chickadees
- Mountain chickadees
Karn Stiegelmeier recommends the following apps:
- Audubon bird guide app, which is free to download and is a replacement for its bird book
- The Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab, which can identify birds by their sounds for you
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