Christmas is for the Birds

Many people around the world are gearing up to celebrate Christmas in a few days. Here in the United States, it’s traditional to put up and decorate a tree and give presents, of course, but did you know that many people before the turn of the 20th century celebrated the season by shooting birds and small animals? These so-called “side hunts” were competitions between teams of men to see which group could shoot the greatest number of animals.

Side hunt participant and his catch. http://www.islandguardian.com/archives/00005123.html
Side hunt participant and his catch. http://www.islandguardian.com/archives/00005123.html

This was a time when it was fashionable for ladies to wear feathered hats made from the plumes of breeding egrets or even entire birds and when sharp shooters were hired to kill bison to prevent them from interfering with the smooth operation of the railroads. The result was that, by the end of the of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, many animals were on the verge of extinction, animals no one thought could ever be wiped out, like the passenger pigeon. Things were changing, however. People were beginning to think differently about nature.

In 1900, a man named Frank Chapman, a trained ornithologist, organized an alternative to the side hunt. Instead of killing birds, he proposed counting them. This was the beginning of the Christmas Bird Count, which is currently in its 115th year and occurs throughout North America.

Brown creeper at Lookout Mountain Nature Center. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Brown creeper at Lookout Mountain Nature Center. Photo by Jamie Simo.

While the very first Christmas Bird Count happened on Christmas day, the modern Christmas Bird Count runs from December 14 to January 5 each year. During this period, participants conduct a survey of all birds seen or heard in a particular 15 mile diameter area from midnight to midnight of a chosen survey day. If you live within a count area, you can also submit data for the birds that come to your backyard feeder. The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world.

Flock of Canada geese at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, VA. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Flock of Canada geese at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, VA. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I participated in the last couple years of the Christmas Bird Count and, while I won’t be able to participate in this year’s count, I highly recommend it if you have some free time between now and the new year. Even if you’re an amateur birder, you’re still eligible to participate since amateurs are partnered up with more experienced birders. Also, since 2012, participating in the count is free. Audubon has a handy map on their website that shows a listing of the survey areas and gives you a way to sign up, so check it out. A thermos of hot chocolate in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other is a great way to usher in 2015!

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Spotlight on Parks: Boyd Lake State Park

Located in Loveland, Colorado, Boyd Lake State Park is known primarily for its titular lake, which offers the opportunity for all kinds of water recreation such as boating, swimming, and fishing. The park also features camping, picnicking, and biking via the Loveland Trail. Even in the “dead” of winter, Boyd Lake State Park is a hopping place. Most of those people doing the hopping though aren’t people at all, they’re birds.

A swarm of American coots at Boyd Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A swarm of American coots at Boyd Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

On a warm December day, I set out for the park with my camera, binoculars, and new spotting scope to see what I could see. The day started out overcast, but that didn’t matter much to the gulls. As I set up my scope to watch them, I startled a pair of Eurasian collared doves and a northern flicker. Near the marina, a small group of mallards dabbled in the shallows and a common goldeneye swam lazily.

From the marina, I walked over to the swimming beach, a long sandy expanse where summer visitors can sunbathe or play in the water. That morning the sand was covered in Canada goose droppings: less than appealing between the toes! A few of the geese were combing through the grass nearby for anything good to eat. They eyed me warily as I surveyed the water. With the aid of my scope, I was able to pick out a couple of female northern shovelers and more common goldeneyes. Northern shovelers are present along the front range all year long while goldeneyes are winter residents of Colorado.

Female merlin at Boyd Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Female merlin at Boyd Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Bald eagle taking flight at Boyd Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Bald eagle taking flight at Boyd Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

According to the park brochure, bald eagles are common at the park during the winter and I wasn’t disappointed to see one in a bare cottonwood overlooking the lake. This one was an adult with the typical white head and tail the bird gains in its fourth or fifth year. Farther down the nicely paved trail, I saw another raptor. This one was a female merlin, a small falcon often called a “lady hawk” because noblewomen in the middle ages commonly used it to hunt small game. Its other nickname, “pigeon hawk,” is due to its shape in flight.

By far the most abundant bird at the park that day was the American coot. Flocks of them bobbed up and down in the shallows searching out aquatic plants. Poor fliers and awkward on land, coots are nevertheless excellent swimmers. Despite their love of water, however, they’re actually more closely related to long-legged wading birds like sandhill cranes than to the ducks they superficially resemble. For example, their feet, rather than being webbed like a duck’s, have flat pads on each toe.

While birds are the most visible residents of Boyd Lake State Park, the park is also home to a number of other animals. On my walk, I saw a few fox squirrels and I caught a whiff of what was surely a fox’s territorial marking. Raccoons also inhabit the park. I didn’t see any of them, but their tracks peppered the muddy shallows of the lake.

If you’re looking for a great place to view wildlife, you can’t go wrong with Boyd Lake State Park. Don’t be put off by the cold weather, winter can be a great time for birding and you might even have the park all to yourself. Entry to the park is $8 a day or you can buy a yearly state park pass for $70. Camping is $20 a night. Fees for additional activities are available on the park’s website.

Spotlight on Parks: State Forest State Park

At the very tail end of November, I decided to take a drive up into the mountains. My destination: the simply, yet aptly, named State Forest State Park. It was designated a state park in 1970 and its 71,000 acres of wilderness borders both Roosevelt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park. State Forest is about a 2-hour drive from Fort Collins through the rocky canyons along State Highway 14 beside which runs the Cache la Poudre river.

View from the trail. State Forest State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
View from the trail. State Forest State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

On my drive, I saw a small herd of big horn sheep and lots of dead lodgepole pines sticking up like porcupine quills out of the rocky soil. The dead pines are due to a mountain pine beetle epidemic. The beetle is about the size of a grain of rice and is native to the western United States, but has been increasingly destructive over the last decade or two due to warmer than average winters that have failed to keep its population in check.

Despite the pine beetle activity, State Forest is a scenic and peaceful park known for its large number of moose, the largest population of moose within Colorado. My first stop was the modern and very well-equipped Moose Visitor Center so that I could find out where the best chance to see moose might be. Bolstered by the fact that the ranger on duty had seen two big bulls and a cow with calf in tow on her drive into the park, I hit the trail.

The park lies between 8,500 and 12,500 feet in elevation and so I was certainly glad for my thermal underwear! Though sunny, the day was very windy and recent storms had brought with them 4 to 5 inches of snow. It was definitely a workout to trudge along on even the compacted snow on the trail between the visitor Center and Ranger Lakes campground. Snowshoes or cross-country skis probably would’ve been a big help. The snow was great for seeing tracks though. In addition to a lot of moose tracks, I saw the tracks of several rabbits and a coyote.

Rabbit tracks, possibly from snowshoe hare. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Rabbit tracks, possibly from snowshoe hare. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I didn’t see a single soul on my trek and I could almost pretend I was the only person in the world. I also didn’t see any moose, though I passed by several stands of willow. The moose is the biggest member of the deer family and is almost an aquatic animal, being a good swimmer. One of its favorite foods is the willow, which grows along most of the streams within the park.

Determined to see a moose, I returned the next day with my husband. Moose, like deer, are most active at dawn and dusk, so we headed up to North Michigan Reservoir mid-afternoon. Despite carefully combing the area, we remained unsuccessful in our hunt.

While I struck out with the moose, I did see several types of song birds. The bird feeders behind the visitor center were swarmed with Stellar’s jays, grey jays, mountain and black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos. I also saw a couple red squirrels. They were a good consolation prize.

Mountain chickadee. Photo by Jamie Simo
Mountain chickadee. Photo by Jamie Simo

I left State Forest after only scratching the tip of the proverbial iceberg of what it offers. For example, did you know the park boasts the only undisturbed, cold-climate sand dune in Colorado? Truly, State Forest State Park subscribes to that old adage “always leave them wanting more.” I’ll definitely be back to explore more.

Entrance to State Forest State Park is $7 a day or $70 for an annual park pass. Tent camping is possible at several campgrounds throughout the park and cabins and yurts are also available to reserve.