A great horned owl perches in a nearby outcropping of trees. At least, that’s what everyone says. But after a third bird-shaped leaf clump fools me, I abandon my binoculars and look sheepishly at the 20-ish members of the
Boulder Bird Club who’ve welcomed me on their monthly Sunday morning walk around the Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat. “Did you see it?” Lonny Frye, the club’s vice president, asks. When I shake my head, he points, and I line up my binoculars again. A spin of the focus wheel transforms a brown blob into the elusive bird of prey.
I never would’ve noticed this owl, or even thought to look. My usual modes of exploration—running, skiing—leave little time to observe nature’s small-scale accoutrements. But bird-watchers soak up every detail. Take Karen Axe, a Boulder Bird Club member who became obsessed with the two-tone whistle of a mountain chickadee she frequently heard near North Table Mountain. Or Yelana Love, a master birder with
Denver Audubon who says the activity helps relieve stress from her day job as an attorney. “It’s a reminder to slow down and pay attention,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many Coloradans to learn that lesson. Alison Holloran, executive director of
Audubon Rockies—the Fort Collins–based regional office of the nationwide bird-focused nonprofit—cites an influx of calls and emails asking for help identifying winged creatures across the Mountain West. “People have had time to realize there’s a lot going on in their own backyards,” Holloran says.
But some of those inquiries have been about what isn’t flying by. “I got a lot of calls this year from people saying, ‘I used to have so many birds in my yard. Where did they all go?’ ” says Zach Hutchinson, Audubon Rockies’ community science coordinator. Those observations aren’t an anomaly. According to a landmark study published in Science in 2019, North America’s avian population shrunk by close to 30 percent over the past 50 years, a trend that hit every ecosystem on the continent.
Even the great horned owl at Walden Ponds could be a sign of human encroachment. In part because it prefers hunting in scraggly wooded patches, the kind left over when a residential development goes up, the great horned owl population is far more robust across the United States than that of the spotted owl, which thrives in the dense forests often felled to make way for more homes.
People who take time to notice the birds, Holloran believes, can make such connections. “Yes, birding is a pastime, but it’s also telling you something about the health of your yard and the wider community you live in,” she says. In other words, it’s the perfect hobby for conservation-minded Coloradans. But don’t, ahem, wing it: Instead, peruse the following pages for everything you need to become a birding pro, no matter which habitat you explore.
More on Birding in Colorado
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Nearly 90 percent of the land on the Eastern Plains is privately owned, often for agriculture. Cows and crops share that space with about 70 percent of the state’s wildlife, including raptors, meadowlarks, and sparrows. Glimpse the feathered denizens of two of those grassy areas (plus a bonus out west) via these guided tours and destinations set aside for birding.
A flirtatious prairie chicken shows off during a lek. Enrique Aguirre Aves/Getty Images
Each year, instinct calls the greater prairie chicken to ancestral lekking (a communal courtship ritual) grounds. There, males dance and puff up the orange air sacs on their necks, generating “boom” calls that attract the ladies. “Even if a farm goes up, they’ll still return,” says Arvada birder Kennedy-Dibala. Thus, many leks, like those near the town of Wray, occur on private land. To get a view, book a tour with the
Wray Chamber of Commerce. The two-day experience, available in March and early April, includes orientation at the Wray Museum and an early morning spot in the wheelchair-accessible birding blind, followed by breakfast. $100
This working cattle ranch is home to nearly 90,000 acres of protected shortgrass prairie, one of the largest expanses left in the United States. Bird-watchers flock year-round to the private property to see some of the 330-plus avian species that make appearances there. Mountain plovers and burrowing owls, both threatened by habitat loss, nest on the ranch. Groves of trees shelter migrating songbirds in the spring and fall, too: Cape May warblers—pollen yellow birds with black spots and, for males, a red spot under each eye—rarely roam west of the Mississippi River but seem to have a penchant for Chico.
$15 daily entrance fee
The Gunnison sage-grouse, a species only found in this western county, would attract attention even if it weren’t endangered (some estimates suggest there are fewer than 2,000 breeding pairs left). That’s because males fan out their mottled tails and strut their stuff in the spring to capture the hearts of females. Visit the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site in April to view the birds from your car. Western Colorado University and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) oversee the area to ensure no one interferes with the rare bird’s reproduction.
$9 CPW State Wildlife Area day pass required to access the area)
Conservation Station: Fragmented
Modern grazing practices can harm birds. But they don’t have to.
Native grasses once dominated the Great Plains, supporting hundreds of species. Today, farming operations splinter the landscape, says Lauren Connell, stewardship director for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. And while researchers can’t say for sure that human-caused habitat disturbance is the only factor, the fact remains that North American grassland birds have decreased by 53 percent since 1970. The correlation can put farmers and flyers at odds—a rivalry a federal program to protect erodable fields could make unnecessary. “Throughout history, our grasslands were disturbed by forces like prairie dogs, fires, and bison,” Connell says. “Grazing cattle can help provide some of that necessary disturbance.” That is, if proper grazing management is used. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a nationwide effort funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), pays farmers to “rest” sections of land for 10 to 15 years. During that time, biologists help landowners choose which noninvasive grasses and forbs to plant to heal the soil. Afterward, as long as ranchers manage grazing patterns so chewed-on grasses can regenerate, the land has a better chance to be profitable and give birds homes. “What I like about the program is it’s completely voluntary,” says Connell, whose team assists the USDA with the program. “This isn’t forcing you to do anything. We’re just letting you know your options.”
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Riparian zones—areas along moving bodies of water, such as streams—and wetlands cover less than three percent of Colorado’s landscape. The lush habitats that emerge, however, are the most biodiverse in the state.
Few places better exemplify the variety of rich ecosystems provided by the damp meadows and oft-flooded riversides of Colorado’s wetlands than the San Luis Valley. There, snowmelt trickles in from the nearby Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains, and water from two naturally occurring aquifers burbles to the surface, forming habitats that support about 200 species of birds. See them in the San Luis Valley
National Wildlife Refuge Complex, where two of the three protected areas are open to the public year-round for free (the Baca National Wildlife Refuge currently only welcomes elk hunters). Suzanne Beauchaine, manager for the Monte Vista and Alamosa refuges, explains what makes each area special.
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/the Denver Post via Getty Images Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge |
Habitat Specs: This refuge envelops the riparian zone along the Rio Grande. Willows and tall grasses near the flowing water shelter nesting waterfowl during the warm months, and raptors (including bald eagles) perch in the cottonwoods when winter sets in.
Bird To Watch: The white-faced ibis, so named for the thin, ivory-colored band surrounding the eyes of breeding adults, uses its long, skinny bill to pluck snacks out of the standing water in the spring and summer. Walk along the new-in-2021, three-ish-mile-long Toivo Malm Trail to see them in action. Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge |
Habitat Specs: The wildlife here enjoys human-made wetlands. Land managers flood irrigation canals to provide standing water for ducks, geese, herons, and other birds plus a smattering of cattails, where many waterfowl like to breed.
Bird To Watch: Thousands of sandhill cranes stop here during their spring and fall migrations, and the recently revamped Cottonwood Grove viewing area provides a prime vantage point. Arrive before sunset to witness the birds flying toward the open water; catch their just-as-dramatic departure at sunrise. Conservation Station: Parched
Dry conditions have cut the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge’s wetland habitat in half over the past 20 years.
To avoid drying out the San Luis Valley aquifer during the current drought in southern Colorado, farmers and other residents have had to reduce water usage. That includes land managers at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, says Beauchaine. They’ve been judicious with water distribution, but the wells and pumps managers rely on to get H₂O from the aquifers need repairs, a costly fix that will take years to complete, since congressional funding goes to day-to-day management. Luckily, you can help by attending the Monte Vista Crane Festival, a free annual celebration of the majestic migrators being held from March 11 to 13 this year. Guests drive to locations in the refuge to watch the cranes and learn more about them from experts. Beauchaine says the influx of visitors shows higher-ups at the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the crane’s habitat is popular and helps the Friends of the San Luis Valley National Refuges (the group that plans the festival) advocate for grants to make Monte Vista better—for birds and humans alike.
A rare Lucy’s warbler. James Hager/Robert Harding/Getty Images Back to Top
Some of the state’s toughest birds make their homes in southwest Colorado.
Craggy cliffs mingle with sagebrush shrublands and caches of piñon and juniper trees; it’s an environment that supports more than 100 species of birds whose songs echo through what is often a near-silent landscape. Keeping quiet, then, is essential when touring the Canyon of the Ancients Trail, a drivable series of excellent bird-watching sites in the state’s southwestern corner. Visit
Dolores Canyon and Hovenweep National Monument to see turkey vultures, woodpeckers, towhees, and, if you’re lucky, Lucy’s warblers. These gray flyers with rusty patches on their crowns and rumps are found in dry environs and occasionally appear in the state come spring, their breeding season. (Canyon of the Ancients Trail is just one of 54 itineraries, featuring nearly 800 sites, put together by the Colorado Birding Trail, a coalition of tourism and conservation entities, including CPW.)
Forests & Woodlands
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Forest types have elevation preferences, which is part of the reason mountain landscapes change as you ascend. Our featured enthusiasts’ favorite tree-loving species have habitat proclivities, too. Here, a look at where to spot them, from lowest to highest elevation.
Scott Somershoe, the land bird coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, studies this blue bird that eats the seeds of piñon pines; its numbers have declined by 78 percent since 1970 due to habitat loss.
Where to see them: Piñon-Juniper Pine Virginia’s Warbler
Each year since 1970, about one percent of the Virginia’s warbler population has disappeared, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies’ Panjabi says. Researchers suspect habitat changes could be a factor, but more research is needed.
Where to see them: Piñon-Juniper Pine, Oak Shrubland
Arvada birder Kennedy-Dibala loves this bird for its resemblance to the Hamburglar. “It has a black mask over its eyes and looks like a bandit,” she says. The comparison is apt: The cedar waxwing robs berries off trees in open woodlands.
Where to see them: Conifer-Hardwood, Ponderosa Pine, Oak Shrubland, Mixed Conifer, Lodgepole Pine
These tiny gray birds can catch insects midflight, but they excel as foragers, hopping along ponderosa pine branches and sticking their skinny bills under bark to pick up seeds and bugs.
Where to see them: Ponderosa Pine
Luckily for Bob Roark, who started Birding Without Barriers (a program making the activity more accessible), his favorite bird lives in many of Colorado’s forests year-round. “They’re cute as can be and enjoy using backyard feeders,” he says.
Where to see them: Hardwood-Aspen, Oak Shrubland, Ponderosa Pine, Conifer-Hardwood
The upper and lower parts of this finch’s bill cross at the tip, giving it extra leverage to pry open pine cones and eat the seeds inside. Burke says a red crossbill living in spruce-fir forests will have a small bill to match the tiny pine cones there.
Where to see them: Spruce-Fir, Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine Pine Grosbeak
This rotund finch feeds on spruce buds and makes its nest on the fork between a conifer trunk and branch, Colorado Field Ornithologists’ Burke says.
Where to see them: Spruce-Fir
Elevation: 4,900–8,000 feet
Where: South-central Colorado and the Western Slope, with the occasional patch on the Eastern Plains
Elevation: 5,000–10,000 feet
Where: Central to west-central Colorado
Elevation: 5,500–9,000 feet
Where: Front Range and San Juan Mountains, with smatterings on the Western Slope
Elevation: 6,000–9,000 feet
Where: Western Colorado (near Grand Junction), along the southern Front Range, and in the central part of the state Hardwood-Aspen
Elevation: 6,500–11,500 feet
Where: Most common on the Western Slope
Elevation: 6,900–10,500 feet
Where: Front Range and scattered throughout western Colorado
Elevation: 8,000–10,000 feet
Where: Colorado’s northern Rocky Mountains, with patches across the western portion of the state
Elevation: 9,500–11,500 feet
Where: Anywhere with tall peaks, especially the Sawatch Range Conservation Station: Torched
Worsening wildfires have left forest birds’ futures up in the air.
As the chief conservation scientist with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, Brandt Ryder uses data collected by the nonprofit’s
breeding bird monitoring program (the second largest in North America) to analyze the impact wildfires have on avian populations in the West. But even with data from most of the region, there’s uncertainty. “Everything we think we know, we might have to throw out the window,” he says, “because, under climate change, the frequency and severity of wildfires is changing so quickly.”
Here’s what researchers can say for sure: The average wildfire makes some forests more livable for birds because the flames burn unevenly and create patches of different habitats (e.g., dense versus thinned woodland) that typically support better species diversity. The wall of flame characteristic of infernos like the Cameron Peak fire, however, appears to permanently damage habitat for species like the brown-capped rosy finch. “Birds that need dense vegetation won’t persist in an area after a destructive wildfire,” Ryder says. Where they go instead is unclear.
The charred landscape isn’t entirely unlivable. Certain species of woodpeckers move in to enjoy the improved foraging. But Ryder says we still don’t know if these ashy forests are ecological traps: land that seems appealing but can’t provide a long-term home.
Scientists also suspect the smoke and debris spewed by wildfires could interrupt migration. A paper published by forest ecology researchers last year blamed a massive migratory bird die-off in fall 2020 on air quality and proximity to wildfires.
Ryder says community members can urge their congressional representatives to provide better funding for the Forest Service and direct it to increase prescribed burns, which clear away flame-feeding brush. His other suggestion? “We should have statewide burn bans,” he says. “Short of that, skip lighting that campfire.”
A white-tailed ptarmigan. Photo courtesy of Peter Burke Back to Top
Head skyward to see the hardy birds that can live in frigid conditions.
In the alpine tundra, where food is scarce and shelter scarcer, birds tend to set up home base for only part of the year. Come summer, a few songbirds, like the American pipit, and golden eagles take advantage of the wide-open, treeless region to hunt rodents. The only bird to live in the high-alpine environs of places like Rocky Mountain National Park and Loveland Pass year-round is the elusive white-tailed ptarmigan, says Colorado Field Ornithologists’ Burke. Its thick layer of feathers—adorning the feet, eyelids, and nostrils—keeps it warm and changes color with the season (brown to blend in with rocks in the summer and white when snow falls). To spot one, Burke suggests bundling up for a winter hike: “Ptarmigan freeze if they hear you, so your best bet is to settle in, wait, and watch,” he says. “But glimpsing one is incredibly satisfying.”