The Birds Herald Spring

Last year we skipped spring. At least it certainly seemed that way. Winter wouldn't leave, and when it finally gave up the fight, summer stepped in to take its place. Spring really never had a chance. This year, however, is writing its own story - and once again spring has a part!

Birds are always an important element in a Rocky Mountain spring. After a silent winter, their cheerful chittering and chattering, their busy flittering and fluttering, and their constant presence is an unmistakeable declaration: "Spring IS Coming!" Thus it seems the perfect time to share some interesting tidbits about the feathered friends moving back into my neighborhood. NOTE: All photos are courtesy of David Slaughter and may not be copied.

Chipping Sparrow

A common sight around Elk Lake each spring, the Chipping Sparrow is a little bird with a big (and pleasing) voice. With their preference for mixed woodlands and grassy areas, this little sparrow finds the Centennial the perfect habitat.

A few interesting tidbits:

  1. In 1929 Edward Forbush described these birds as: "the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives."
  2. According to the All About Birds website, Chipping Sparrows are creative nest builders. They say, "People have found their nests among hanging strands of chili peppers, on an old-fashioned mower inside a tool shed, and on a hanging basket filled with moss."
  3. Found up to timberline, these little birds' diet consists of primarily seeds. However insects comprise a large portion of their summer-time diet, and occasionally they also eat small fruits.

White Crowned Sparrow

A favorite spring visitor, our White Crowned Sparrow come fairly early and are a common sight until late summer. Distinctive due to their white and black 'crowns', some of these birds spend their summers in the willows near the lodge.

A few interesting tidbits:

  1. Common across most of North America, these birds often migrate long distances. While some remain in California year-round, many travel long distances between their summer and wintering grounds - some traveling as far north as the Arctic Circle.
  2. Primarily seed eaters, these birds can also catch insects in flight.
  3. The most interesting tidbit came from Wickipedia. They said, "The White-crowned Sparrow is known for its natural alertness mechanism, which allows it to stay awake for up to two weeks during migration. This effect has been studied for possible human applications, such as shift-work drowsiness or truck driving."


Did you know Juncos - one of the first birds seen hopping around on spring's first patches of bare ground - are a sparrow? I did not. I guess I just never thought about their familial connections.

A Few Interesting Tidbits:

  1. Certainly Juncos are not an uncommon site. In fact, according to All About Birds, a recent estimate puts their numbers at approximately 630 million!
  2. Very adaptable, these birds can be found from sea level to nearly 11,000 feet.
  3. Their diet consists primarily of seeds although, during breeding season, they do eat a variety of insects.
  4. Juncos commonly nest on the ground in a depression or nook. Thus, I suspect, the bird I nearly touched while hiking along a steep slope this past summer was a Junco.

Audubon's Warbler - aka Yellow Rumped Warbler

While not as common, perhaps, as the proceeding birds, this warbler is still one of the most easily spotted around Elk Lake. Furthmore, it is extremely colorful and often quite inquisitive. Certainly it is one of my favorite spring-time visitors.

A Few Interesting Tidbits:

  1. It appears, based on the web sources I read, this warbler's 'western' version is known as Audubon's Warbler while its eastern counter-part is called Yellow-Rumped Warbler.
  2. These birds feed primarily on insects
  3. A hearty bird, these colorful fellows tend to winter further north than others of their species. According to National Georgraphic, this is because of "their unique ability to digest the waxes in bayberries."

House Wren

Here is a 'common' fellow possessing a beautiful and distinctive song. Common yes - but special to me - perhaps because they have nested outside my back door for eight years.

A Few Interesting Tidbits:

  1. The most widely distributed bird in the Americas.
  2. While subspecies vary greatly, most differences are limited to 'looks'. In fact, while 5,600 miles separate the northern and southern species, their primary difference is their voice.
  3. They nest in cavities and, as I have seen, are very persistent. One of the most interesting bird interactions I've observed was between a Tree Swallow and a House Wren - both intent on nesting in the same cavity.
  4. Little wonder these birds are so wide spread - the female lays 2 to 8 eggs and the young fledge within 19 days of hatching. Furthermore, I have observed House Wrens raising more than one clutch per season.

Mountain Bluebird

No list of springtime returnees would be complete without the Mountain Bluebird. Certainly one of the most strikingly colored birds who frequent our area, the male's feathers cannot be confused with any other.

A Few Interesting Tidbits:

  1. These birds prefer open meadows and rangelands above 5,000 feet.
  2. They hover over the ground then fly down to catch insects. It is not uncommon to see them sitting calmly on a post, suddenly flitting out a few yards to catch a bug, then calmly returning to their perch only to repeat the process in a few minutes.
  3. These birds are partial to a nest box - especially if they have raised a clutch successfully in the location.
  4. While many birds will abandon a nest if human's or predators approach too closely, Mountain Bluebirds will fiercely protect their nest.

Red-Necked Grebe

Living on a lake has many advantages, not the least being the opportunity to include many shore and water birds (as well as fish eating hawks and eagles) to my list. This particular water bird is striking both in its markings and its distinctive call.

A Few Interesting Tidbits

  1. While many of the birds we have visited today are common to all or most of North America, Red-Necked Grebes are common only in Alaska, Canada, and the northern reagions of the continental US.
  2. Grebes ingest a large quantity of their own feathers. They also feed feathers to their young. These feathers remain in their stomachs but their purpose is unknown.
  3. They feed primarily on fish, crustacians, and aquatic insects.
  4. Red-Necked Grebes build a floating nest which is anchored to aquatic plants or submerged logs. I have heard the birds keep adding to their nest throughout the season as it slowly sinks due to natural causes. I have seen nesting birds who were apparently doing so.

Marsh Hawk aka Northern Harrier

Another not-so-wide-spread bird common to our area, the Northern Harrier sports a lighter coloration than many local raptors.

A Few Interesting Tidbits:

  1. Also called the Hen Harrier, these birds are most common in Canada, the extremely northern regions of the continental US and northern Eurasia. There is also at least one recorded transatlantic bird who traveled from the Americas to Great Britain.
  2. A ground nesting bird they hunt small birds and mammals and cover the ground with a contour-hugging flight pattern.
  3. A medium-sized raptor, the Harrier is also a very vocal bird - particularly while gliding over its hunting grounds.

We have visited numerous common birds today - certainly none to set a birder's heart aflame and nothing in the running for 'life-bird' - however each one is special - if for no other reason than they all bring the fresh breath of spring after a cold and barren winter.

Lady of the Lake

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