Tag Archives: Colorado

ID Challenge: Cattle Egret vs. Great Egret vs. Snowy Egret

Cattle Egret in breeding plumage. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Ah, the egret. One of the most majestic and graceful of birds. Fashionistas of the past agreed: thousands of egrets were slaughtered for their long, silky plumes, which used to adorn ladies’ hats.

There are 3 egret species that regularly visit Colorado: the Cattle Egret, the Great Egret, and the Snowy Egret. All 3 are only found in Colorado in the breeding season and are generally white birds. So how’s a birder supposed to know which one they’re looking at?

Size comparison between the Great Egret (left) and the Snowy Egret. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One way is to look at where the bird is. Is it wading in ankle-deep water in a marsh or is it poking around in a (perhaps wet) pasture or agricultural field? If it’s in a field, sometimes surrounded by cows, you’re almost certainly looking at a Cattle Egret. Cattle Egrets, which somehow became established in North America in the 1950’s, are shorter and stockier than our native egrets with either dark legs in non-breeding plumage or orange legs in breeding plumage, and thick, orange beaks. In breeding season, their plumes are a rusty color on their crowns, backs, and breasts that immediately give them away. Neither the Snowy nor the Great Egret have colorful

Snowy Egret in breeding plumage. Note the plumes on the chest. Photo by Jamie Simo.


The next biggest egret in Colorado is the Snowy Egret. Next to the Cattle Egret, the Snowy is taller and more slender with a longer, more pointed bill. As mentioned, the Snowy Egret has white plumes so it’s more difficult to tell it apart from the Great Egret than the Cattle Egret.

The Great Egret is about twice the size of the Snowy Egret, towering over the smaller bird. It’s roughly the same size as a Great Blue Heron. It can be hard to judge size if you are only looking at a single bird, however. The Snowy Egret has black legs with yellow feet, while the Great Egret has both black legs and feet, but if the bird’s feet are submerged in water, that’s not a helpful characteristic either.

Great Egret. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The best way to distinguish between the two birds then, is by bill color. The Snowy Egret has a black bill with a yellow patch of skin on its face while the Great Egret has an orange bill with a yellow patch of skin on its face that turns a bright green in the breeding season.

So head to your nearest wetland or cow pasture and look for some egrets to test out your newfound ID skills. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed by these birds.


My Little Chickadee

On March 29th, I finally got around to putting up the chickadee nest box I bought last year. Like with my flicker box, I targeted the Black-capped Chickadee as a potential yard tenant based on the fact I had a handful of them already hanging around and eating from my bird feeder. Well, on March 30th, I noticed a chickadee going in and out of the box and on April 6th, the pair already had a complete nest!

Black-capped Chickadee at Belmar Park in Lakewood, CO, excavating a nest cavity. Both male and female chickadees will excavate. Photo by Jamie Simo.

There are 7 chickadee species in North America and all are cavity-nesters. When I lived in Virginia, my backyard chickadee was the Carolina Chickadee, which tends to have a more southerly range than the Black-capped Chickadees I now encounter. Like the Northern Flicker, the Black-capped Chickadee will readily use a nest box. Of  course, the chickadee is much smaller than the flicker, so it needs a smaller box. A good idea to keep birds like European Starlings and, especially, House Sparrows, away, is to buy or make a box with an entry hole too small for those birds to enter. I bought a hole guard made of metal to screw over the entry hole. The guard is 1 1/8 inches in diameter, which is perfect for the chickadees to squeeze through, but too small for those other bully birds.

A Black-capped Chickadee pulls fluff from a cattail to line her nest. Photo by Old Mister Crow. https://flic.kr/p/TFzMJx

Also unlike the Northern Flicker, which lays her eggs directly in the wood chips at the bottom of the cavity she’s chosen, the Black-capped Chickadee will build a nest inside her cavity of choice on top of the wood chips. The female constructs the nest using mosses, evergreen needles, bark, and other coarse materials as a base, which she then lines with softer material like animal fur and plant fibers like milkweed fluff. Only the female chickadee incubates the eggs.

Because I didn’t realize the chickadees would be so quick to start nesting, I didn’t get a nest camera installed beforehand, but I’m planning on putting one up next year. In the meantime, I’ll try to document the nest attempt as best I can. Chickadees are more sensitive to monitoring than bluebirds, so I probably won’t be checking the box too frequently lest I cause them to abandon it.



Let’s Hear it for the Squirrel

Did you know that today is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Neither did I until I started seeing it pop up on my Twitter feed! Held on January 21 since 2001, Squirrel Appreciation Day was created by a wildlife rehabilitator from North Carolina named Christy Hargrove.

I’ve talked before about the prairie dog, a type of ground squirrel, which is extremely important to grassland ecosystems, including those found in Colorado, but other squirrels are just as important. Aside from providing prey for predators as diverse as snakes, coyotes, and hawks, they also help disperse plant seeds. When they cache food (store it for later, especially by burying), they don’t always remember where they put it and that gives plants, particularly trees, a chance to grow. Squirrels are essentially forgetful gardeners.

Mother and baby Golden-mantled ground squirrels. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Colorado is home to a number of different squirrel species, which are generally divided into two categories: ground squirrels and tree squirrels. Not counting prairie dogs, there are six species of ground squirrel in Colorado:

  1. Thirteen-lined ground squirrel
  2. Spotted ground squirrel
  3. Golden-mantled ground squirrel
  4. Rock squirrel
  5. White-tailed antelope squirrel
  6. Wyoming ground squirrel

Ground squirrels occur across the state and they make their homes in burrows underground. Their diets mostly consist of seeds and fruits, but may also include nuts, flowers, or insects. Most hibernate during the winter. This conserves energy when food may be scarce.

The other category of squirrel is the tree squirrel. There are three species of tree squirrel in Colorado:

A pine squirrel eyes the intruder warily. Photo by Jamie Simo.
  1. Eastern fox squirrel
  2. Abert’s squirrel
  3. Pine squirrel

Tree squirrels primarily eat the seeds of trees such as acorns and pine cones. They also are active throughout the year and live in hollow trees or nests they construct in the branches of trees from sticks and leaves (called dreys).

Squirrels are amazing creatures and are fun to watch. We probably rarely think about them because of how common they are, so it’s good they have their own day to call attention to them.

It’s your day, squirrels, you do you!


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: Barr Lake

There are 42 state parks in Colorado along with a host of other open spaces and recreational areas. That’s not to mention the 4 national parks the Rocky Mountain State boasts. Every month I hope to bring you a break down of one of those parks or areas, highlighting the natural diversity we’re lucky to have here in Colorado. This month’s Spotlight on Parks features Barr Lake State Park.

Barr Lake State Park is located in Brighton, not far from Denver. Map of Barr Lake The main attraction of the park is the titular lake, but the lake wasn’t always a lake. Historically, the lake was a bison wallow and watering hole for native wildlife. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that the wallow became a permanent water source due to the construction of the Burlington Canal.

Today, the lake’s cottonwood-lined banks, as well as the lake itself, provide both valuable habitat for a number of fish, birds, and mammals, as well as recreational fishing and boating opportunities.

A white pelican forages among the aquatic plants of Barr Lake. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A white pelican forages among the aquatic plants of Barr Lake. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The diversity of birds at the park also makes it an idea spot for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory’s bird-banding headquarters.

On a hot July day, I visited Barr Lake for the first time and found myself enamored of its nature center, which is stuffed to the gills with informational displays and animal artifacts. Running my hands over a beaver pelt, I thought back to the fur trappers of the 1700 and 1800’s, and marveled at the size of a merlin in comparison with a bald eagle.

The nature center is open daily from 9-4pm and is the epicenter for many park activities, including guided hikes. In addition to the displays, the nature center has a modest book store and a large picture window where you can sit and watch the birds (and an enterprising squirrel or two!) visit the park’s bird feeders.

Heading down the Niedrach trail from the nature center, you’ll come to a fork. To the left is the part of the park designated as a wildlife refuge. This path leads to the boardwalk, which takes you along the marshy perimeter of the lake. Common grackles and Bulloch’s orioles flit in and around the aquatic plants and that popping sound you hear is a big catfish breaking the surface in search of insect prey. Arriving in late morning, I didn’t see many mammals on my visit, but birds were abundant. In fact, 350 species of birds have been recorded at the park. While I didn’t see nearly that many, I did see what appeared to be a family of American kestrels, a Swainson’s hawk being mobbed by western kingbirds, a slew of white pelicans gliding over the lake, and a juvenile Bulloch’s oriole being fed by its mother.

A mother Bulloch's oriole feeds her juvenile chick. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A mother Bulloch’s oriole feeds her juvenile chick. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Heading down the right hand portion of Niedrach trail brings you to a small picnic area overlooking a wooded, swampy area. The highlight of the park for me was by far the owl box nailed to a tree just beyond that raised picnic area. Inside the box? A pair of roosting barn owls; a first for me! Barn owls are present throughout most of the lower 48 states, but in some of those areas their numbers are declining due to habitat loss. Do these owls have chicks in that box?

Two barn owls roosting in nest box at Barr Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo
Two barn owls roosting in nest box at Barr Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo

After seeing the barn owls, I turned around. However, the trail continued and I think I could have spent all day exploring rather than just the few hours I did. There’s just that much to see. So if you have some extra time, check out Barr Lake State Park. The daily fee for all Colorado State Parks is $7, but you can purchase an annual pass for $70. If you can afford it, the annual pass is definitely worth every penny.