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It’s a Monday morning in winter, and an 8 a.m. Zoom meeting looms on my calendar. Evidence of last night’s freeze clings to Dex’s paws as we shuffle across the grass toward Grasmere Lake, our quarry. There, my 10-year-0ld Australian shepherd mix and I take inventory of the large flock of waterfowl that wades through the icy water, unfazed by the chill.
Birding without binoculars is like driving your car on empty. It’s always a surprise how far you can get—and when you peter out. This morning, I’m fresh out of unleaded, but it’s easy enough to identify large fowl on a small lake, even for a beginner birder with a field guide (eBird and Merlin also help).
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As I inspect the flock, my eyes (and ears) first register some one hundred “honkers” or Canada geese blanketing the water, each sporting the distinctive white chinstrap the species is known for. To the left, I count three buffleheads (small, big-headed diving ducks) bobbing below the surface, where they use their sieve-like bills to gather a breakfast of aquatic insects. I spy the two males by the white patch on their heads and their iridescent faces. The female is darker in color and distinguishable by her thin white cheek mark.
Continuing to work the large flock of waterfowl, I mark the lake with an imaginative grid and weave between squares until more species in Mother Nature’s quilt reveal themselves: hooded mergansers, northern shovelers, lesser scaups, mallards, common goldeneyes, and two blue morph snow geese masquerading in the Canadian flock. I turn to tell Dex about the “blues,” but he’s zeroed in on his own prize: two squirrels thawing on an overhead limb.
As long as I can remember, birds have tethered me to the places I’ve lived. Growing up in Maryland, I heard the hoots of great horned owls reverberate in the hardwood forests. In Corpus Christi, Texas, where I went to college, crested caracaras and scissor-tailed flycatchers coasted on thermals above the brush. Here in Denver, large flocks of waterfowl remind me that fall moves quickly and winter waits for no one, including the birds.
Dex and I round the lake and begin to head back when the flock goes into a frenzy. A familiar shadow soars over the water. The geese, flailing carelessly in the water moments before, now all stand alert with their necks straightened. Mother Nature is stitching a new swatch into her Washington Park quilt: The first bald eagle of winter soars overhead with a swagger. She’s unbothered, and her eyes send an alarming gaze down upon the sitting ducks as she lands in a large cottonwood. Dex and I sit on a nearby bench and watch her for half an hour until it’s time to wander home and open my laptop.
4 of the Best Birdwatching Sites in Denver
Whether you’re trying to break up your work day with a walk in the park or add to your life list while exploring close to home, you can do both by visiting my four favorite local birding sites (all with a Denver zip code).
- eBird species (all time): 183
- Access hours: 6 a.m.–11 p.m.
- Notable sightings: Bald eagle (fall), yellow warbler (summer), cedar waxwing (summer, fall)
The irony of my local patch (birder speak for “site I regularly revisit”) being Denver’s favorite park isn’t lost on me. Visit Wash Park any day, year-round, and you’ll find other Denverites doing what Denverites do best: running, working out, biking, rinsing, and repeating. While birds don’t typically flock to areas with large active human populations (especially ones where people are flailing around on roller skis), Wash always seems to hold at least a few birds.
Amid the fitness crowd, volleyball nets, and picnics, you’ll encounter a different avian assortment depending on the time of year. Common sightings in late fall and winter include Canada geese, mallards, buffleheads, northern shovelers, and other migratory waterfowl. If you’re lucky, you might also find canvasbacks (large diving ducks with chestnut heads), the occasional bald eagle, or a few snow geese who’ve veered off track while migrating along the Central Flyway from the Arctic.
Bluff Lake Nature Center
- eBird species (all time): 233
- Access hours: Sunrise to sunset
- Notable sightings: Horned grebe (spring), sharp-shinned hawk (fall), lark bunting (summer)
While I struggle to classify Bluff Lake as a hidden gem, that’s how many Denver birders describe the 123-acre wildlife refuge after their first visit. The property holds a variety of flora and fauna, and local birders have identified more than 220 bird species throughout Bluff Lake’s acreage. Individuals looking to learn more about Denver’s avian residents or eager to try birding for the first time can join in on one of the nature center’s scheduled bird walks.
Start your journey from the parking lot and descend upon Bluff Lake Trail, a one-mile loop through woodlands and around Bluff Lake. From here, the birding opportunities are plenty. I recommend heading to the observation blind on the lake’s northern shore and searching for waterfowl (ruddy ducks, green-winged teal, and grebes) or piggybacking onto the Creek Loop (half a mile, easy) and keeping your eyes peeled for birds of prey (red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, and American kestrels are common, while sharp-shinned hawk and merlin sightings are few and far between but well worth the wait).
Sloan’s Lake Park
- eBird species (all time): 179
- Access hours: Sunrise to sunset
- Notable sightings: Yellow-rumped warbler (spring), belted kingfisher (fall), osprey (spring)
Sloan’s Lake, at a surface area of 177 acres, is the largest in Denver. At its heart is Penny Island, a 67,396-square-foot, sparsely vegetated landmass, which serves as a nesting ground for one of North America’s largest raptors: the osprey (from ossifragus, old Latin for bone-breaker). Venture out to Sloan’s Lake from spring to early summer, and you’ll most likely find other photographers and birding enthusiasts observing these striking “fish eagles” firsthand. Viewing is best near the parking lot closest to the intersection of Stuart Street and West 21st Avenue.
Examine the groves of trees near the pump track and tennis courts if you’re hunting for warblers, sparrows, or flycatchers. In the winter, Sloan’s commonly sees groups of mergansers (common and hooded), gadwalls, and goldeneyes (common). Explore the lake’s perimeter via the Sloan’s Lake Loop.
Huston Lake Park
- eBird species (all time): 125
- Access hours: 5 a.m.–11 p.m.
- Notable sightings: Cedar waxwing (winter), American goldfinch (summer), western tanager (spring)
Located between I-25 and Lakewood, Huston Lake Park is a popular recreational haunt in West Denver. The park features tennis courts, basketball hoops, and soccer fields, and visitation soared during the recent pickleball craze. The pickleball courts, where round-robin doubles play is still popular, garner a waitlist most nights during all seasons but winter.
Birding in the park is best around the lake, which migrating shorebirds (double-crested cormorants, American white pelicans, black-crowned night herons) often use as a rest stop, an avian rendition of the Love’s Travel Stop you might visit while trekking to Fort Collins, Grand Junction, or some other destination across our fine state. Stands of trees around the lake and scattered throughout the park also often hold various songbirds; look out for favorites such as cedar waxwings, American goldfinches, and western tanagers. Two rare sparrows, Harris’s and white-throated, have also recently visited the park.