High Country Birding: Seasons change and so do the birds
Fall has come to Summit County. Aspen are gilding hillsides, summer crowds are thinning and football is elbowing its way into baseball’s sports pages. The birds of summer are on the move, too. Sure, there are those rough and hardy types that shrug off subzero temperatures, two-story snowdrifts and ice-covered ponds, but many birds prefer palm trees in winter to frozen birdbaths, heading downslope to lower elevations, at least, if not Mexico and points south. Summit’s summer hummer, the broad-tailed hummingbird, along with our short-term migratory hummers, the rufous and calliope, will all be Mexico bound by the end of September, so you can clean and shelve your sugar feeders come October. Cliff, barn, violet-green and tree swallows all vacate as well, leaving the High Country with yellow, yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and orange-crowned warblers. Sparrows split, too, including those white-crowned you can find at 12,000 feet in the summer. Surprisingly, even Colorado’s state bird, the lark bunting, wimps out in winter. In some cases, one sub-species leaves town while another tag-teams in, like the gray-headed dark-eyed junco who nests here in summer, but is replaced by the Oregon dark-eyed in winter.
And then there are those hangers-on, enjoying less-crowded slopes along with an extra ration of ice. This group includes gray and Steller’s jay, crows, crossbills, ravens, magpies, woodpeckers and both mountain and black-capped chickadees, as well as pine grosbeaks, siskins, nuthatches and nutcrackers. White-tailed Ptarmigan not only stand their ground in the highest country, they switch their camouflaged plumage from tundra rock to pure snow white. In addition, some water birds mostly absent in summer make a winter appearance on deeper lakes, including ducks, geese, mergansers and goldeneyes. And rosy finches, rare at home feeders in summer, will show up in numbers once the snow falls. In other words, the change in seasons brings a change in birdlife as well, but not a disappearance, so keep your feeders full and your camera handy.
As attention turns to snow, skis and boards; bikes, fly rods and other toys of summer are being shelved till spring. Except for backyard birders, or the rough and hardy, this includes birder’s gear as well. This column will join those toys on the shelf till next year, too. It’s been a lovely High Country summer, but desert rats don’t handle cold weather well, so I’ll be joining those birds heading south to the palm tree country till Summit County’s snow fades once again.
Bob is a freelance writer specializing in nature and travel articles. He writes a monthly birding column for an Arizona newspaper, lives in the mountain foothills near Tucson and spends much of his summer in Keystone. He writes a birding and travel blog, http://www.birdingthebrookeandbeyond.com , and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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