Spotlight on Parks: Pueblo Lake State Park

It’s been warm the last week or two, but overall it’s been a cold winter, so a nice distraction from that cold weather was a jaunt south to Pueblo Lake State Park. Pueblo Lake, named for the reservoir at its heart, is a great winter destination to look for gulls, ducks, and resident birds reliant on the area’s pinyon-juniper woodland, riparian, and short grass prairie ecosystems. In addition to birds, the park is also home to mule deer, coyotes, several species of turtles, and prairie rattlesnakes.

Pueblo dam at Pueblo Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Pueblo dam, which created the reservoir, was finished in 1975 by the Bureau of Reclamation as a way to provide water for irrigation, drinking, and recreation, as well as to prevent floods. Because the rushing waters of the dam prevent the area below the dam from freezing, it’s a good place for waterfowl and the willows growing amongst the sand and rocks harbor small songbirds like Bewick’s Wren and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The dam itself is used for nesting by birds like Rock Pigeons and White-throated Swifts. Fishermen seem to find the area equally good habitat for fish.

Bewick’s Wren among the willows at the base of Pueblo Dam. Photo by Jamie Simo.

My primary objective at the park was to look for rare gulls as we were just learning about them in my Audubon Master Birder class. The lake did not disappoint. In among the more common Ring-billed and Herring Gulls roosting near the boats in the marina, I was able to pick out a Lesser Black-backed Gull and a Glaucous Gull. The latter was particularly striking with its all white primary feathers.

After leaving the South Marina, I did some hiking along some of the trails in the park. As well as being a great place for wintering and resident birds, Pueblo Lake is known for its diversity of plant life. According to the park’s website, it is home to 5 rare plant species:  Arkansas Valley evening Primrose, golden blazing star, Pueblo goldenweed , dwarf milkweed and round–leaf four-o’-clock. While none of these plants were in bloom during my visit, I did get to take in the cholla cacti and the spectacular buttes surrounding the reservoir. It was very easy to imagine a mountain lion prowling among those craggy bluffs.

Cholla cactus. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The park is huge at over 10,000 acres and it boasts 400 campsites and year-round camping due to the usually mild winters. Boating, hiking, biking, and horseback riding are just a few of the activities Lake Pueblo offers.

While my trip unfortunately had to be kept short, you can spend a weekend at Pueblo Lake and still not see or do everything there is to see and do. I’d hoped to see a Scailed Quail after hearing about them from some fellow birders, but ultimately left empty-handed. Guess I’ll just have to come back!

When visiting the park you’ll want to either purchase an annual pass for $70 or pay the daily $7 entry fee. Information about additional fees for camping and other activities is available on the park’s website.

ID Challenge: Greater and Lesser Scaup

There are several black and white ducks that show up in Colorado, including the Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bufflehead, and Ring-necked Duck. But few are as difficult to tell apart as the Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) and the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis).

The males of both birds have iridescent black heads (showing either green or purple in the right light), white sides, black rumps, and black and white barred backs that look grey from a distance. Both also breed in the arctic and can be found in the winter in Colorado, though the Greater Scaup is much rarer here owing to the fact that it prefers coastal areas.

Greater Scaups with Lesser Scaup at South Platte Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

So, you have a black and white duck that you’ve narrowed down to being a scaup. How do you figure out which scaup you have? The classic way to tell between the two is to look at the head shape of the bird. Is there a bump on the top of the head behind the eye? You have a Lesser Scaup. Is the head rounded or there’s a small bump on the top of the head in front of the eye? You have a Greater Scaup. The Greater Scaup also has a more extensive black nail on the bill than the Lesser Scaup.

This male Greater Scaup (center frame) shows off the extensive white on his flight feathers, which is characteristic of the species. Photo by Jamie Simo

But what if you can’t tell whether there’s a bump or where the bump is? Another way to tell is by the amount of white on the extended flight feathers of the wing. The bright white on the wing of the Greater Scaup extends from the secondaries (inner flight feathers) out onto the primaries (outer flight feathers), while the bright white on the wing of the Lesser Scaup is restricted almost entirely to the secondaries. So if you can wait for the bird to fly or stretch, you’ll know immediately which scaup you’re seeing.

If you’re lucky to have both in the same flock, you can also easily see the size difference between the birds. Greater Scaups are slightly larger with proportionately bigger heads. They are also usually brighter white on the sides than Lesser Scaups, though this isn’t always the case.

Now, can you find the Lesser Scaup in the photo below?

Photo by Jamie Simo



Getting Cold Feet?

It’s another snowy day out on the Front Range and while I’m cooped up inside, I’m enjoying watching the birds flitting around my feeders. A couple minutes outside with no gloves on and my hands are starting to go numb, but these juncos and finches are clutching freezing metal with their little toes and hopping around in the snow with no problem. It makes you cold just to think about it, but even though these birds’ feet are pretty cold, they’re not getting cold feet.

A male Common Merganser swimming at Cherry Creek State Park in January. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Unlike us, birds have few nerves in their feet, so the cold doesn’t affect them as much as it does us. That’s why ducks and geese can swim around in icy water. Birds can fluff up their feathers and sit on their feet to warm them (similar to how you might stick your hands in your pockets or place them under your arms), and some birds that live in colder climates even have feathered legs, but birds also have an ingenious circulatory system called rete mirabile, meaning wonderful or miraculous net.

A Rough-legged Hawk is one of 3 raptors in Colorado with legs feathered all the way to the toes. Photo by Jamie Simo.

A bird’s veins (carrying blood back to the heart) and arteries (carrying blood out from the heart) are close together in its legs and feet, so close they intertwine. This allows warm blood from the heart to heat up the colder blood traveling back to the heart from the extremities. This heats up a bird’s legs and feet enough that they keep from freezing and keeps cold blood from getting back to the bird’s core, which would chill the bird. Because a bird’s feet are usually pretty small in comparison to the rest of the bird’s body, the amount of heat lost from a bird’s feet is also pretty small.

So you can put down the knitting needles; birds are doing just fine without little birdy booties.