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As Birdwatching Takes Wing in Colorado, Here's Where to Start

The greater sandhill crane inspired a festival.EXPAND
The greater sandhill crane inspired a festival.
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People have flocked to birdwatching during the pandemic, as we report in this week's cover story. Are you ready to join the ranks of this state's birdwatchers?

Here’s a starter set of species to look for in Colorado, from notable raptors to native species only found here. Grab the binoculars and go!

Gunnison Sage Grouse
The Gunnison sage grouse is considered an endangered species; there are only an estimated 5,000 of these endemic birds across eight areas in western Colorado and eastern Utah, including Piñon Mesa, Crawford, San Miguel Basin, Gunnison Basin, Dove Creek and Poncha Pass. A bonus for birdwatchers: Each spring, males put on a strutting display in front of gathering groups of females, who pick their mates during a theatrical courtship that can last for several hours.

Brown-Capped Rosy Finch
The brown-capped rosy finch is another endemic bird, and has the smallest range of the three American species of rosy finch. Only found high in the mountains, it breeds above timberline. Nests are usually in crevices with plenty of shade.

Mountain Bluebird
The powder-blue male mountain bluebird is considered one of the most beautiful birds in the West, according to Denver Audubon. The birds may nest in tree hollows, holes in cliffs or dirt banks. During winter, mountain bluebirds gather in large flocks, sometimes by the hundreds.

Violet-Green Swallow
Although the violet-green swallow might look like a tree swallow, the bird’s green back and purple tail mark it as this passerine species. Its habitat runs along the West Coast from Alaska to Mexico, extending as far east as Montana and Texas.

Lazuli Bunting
The song of the bright-blue male has a high, rapid, strident warble, and helps identify its location. The lazuli bunting is named after the gemstone lapis lazuli, which has a similar color. Look for these birds in brushy areas, weedy pastures and even urban settings.

Blue Grosbeak
This species is part of the cardinal family, and will come to Colorado after wintering in Central America, northern Mexico and southern parts of this country. The female is mostly brown; the male gives the bright bird its name. Look for the blue grosbeak in spring, summer and fall, in scattered trees, riparian woodlands, fields and scrub, thickets and woodland edges.

Red-Tailed Hawk
This bird of prey is very comfortable in urban neighborhoods and backyards. Red-tailed hawks are legally protected in Canada, Mexico and the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Broad-Tailed Hummingbird
These medium-sized hummingbirds are found in highland regions from the western United States to Guatemala. Both the male and female have iridescent green backs, white eye rings and rounded black tails projecting beyond their wing tips, which earn the species its name.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch
A petite, compact bird with a long, pointed bill and plump body, the red-breasted nuthatch is actually blue-gray in color with a strongly patterned head. The bird’s underparts are a rich rusty cinnamon in males and more muted in females.

Brown Creepers
The tiny songbird has a long, spine-tipped tail, a slim body and a slender, decurved bill. It appears to move in small jerks as it hunts for insects and spiders. The species is comfortable in Denver backyards as well as at elevations as high as 11,000 feet. “Brown creepers and red-breasted nuthatch are smaller, less obvious species and can be more difficult to spot,” says Denver Audubon’s Kate Hogan. “They’re known for the unusual ways that they move up and down trees.”

Golden Eagle
One of the largest birds in North America, the golden eagle is found in the western half of the United States and only occasionally east of the Mississippi. Adults are dark brown with a golden tint on their necks and heads. They usually prefer open space near mountains and cliffs, but can be spotted everywhere from farmland to urban parks, deserts, streams and even Arctic locales.

Clark’s Grebe
This widespread species of aquatic bird enjoys urban waterways throughout the colder months, when it will spend a majority of the day diving for bugs and small fish. The large waterbird has a long, slender neck, straight bill and a relatively small body.

Yellow Warbler
These small songbirds are a spectacular bright yellow, with medium-length tails and rounded heads. One of the most widely distributed warblers, the species nests from the Arctic Circle to Mexico, and enjoys streamside willows and the edges of woodlands.

Audubon’s Yellow-Rumped Warbler
This species is named for John James Audubon, the American naturalist and bird artist who lived from 1785 to 1851. While the myrtle warbler subspecies is actually the more common warbler, the two are sometimes confused. Audubon’s yellow-rumped warbler has a yellow throat, and the myrtle is white — though male Audubons have more white plumage in the wing than the myrtle. Female Audubons have less distinctly marked faces, lacking the dark ear patches of the myrtle.

Sandhill cranes will be flying — virtually — on May 3.EXPAND
Sandhill cranes will be flying — virtually — on May 3.

Greater Sandhill Crane
The greater sandhill crane, an ancient bird species that is classified as a Tier 1 Species of Concern by the State of Colorado, is so popular that it has its own festival. “Every March, these birds return from their wintering grounds in New Mexico and Arizona and nest and raise their young in wetland areas throughout the Yampa Valley in northwest Colorado. At the end of summer, Yampa Valley cranes are joined by greater sandhill cranes from other Rocky Mountain states,” explains Nancy Merrill, president of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition.

That’s why the nonprofit organization hosts an annual four-day Yampa Valley Crane Festival over Labor Day Weekend. Although the festival was virtual last year, it will be back in Steamboat Springs and Hayden in September 2021 for its tenth year. In the meantime, you can catch a free virtual webinar, “Everything You Want to Know About Greater Sandhill Crane Nesting,” at 7 p.m. Monday, May 3, here.

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