Lifer #503 — Sabine’s Gull

xema sabini

Tuesday, September 11, 2018 — 4:12 pm

Chatfield State Park, Colorado

Sabine’s Gulls breed high in the tundra along the Alaskan and Canadian coast of the Arctic Ocean. Most of them migrate along the Pacific coast, but every fall, a few show up on the larger reservoirs in central Colorado. I knew I would get one sooner or later.

One was found on Chatfield Reservoir, about an hour north of my house, earlier this week. I was planning on heading up this weekend, but then three jaegers—two Long-tailed and a Parasitic—were spotted at the same place, and I couldn’t let two lifers and a second-ever sighting go by.

I left work an hour early, thanks to my gracious, ever-understanding boss, and arrived at Chatfield State Park a little before 4:00 pm. I had no idea where any of the birds were being sighted, so I just started walking the shore, stopping frequently to scan the large lake with my binoculars and spotting scope. It wasn’t too long before I spotted a black-headed gull swimming in the center of the southwest arm of the lake.

I set up my scope and watched. Most of the time, the gull was swimming, looking back and forth alertly with its head held high. Occasionally it would flutter forward somewhere between three and 15 feet and then land again. I wasn’t close enough to see what it was chasing, if that’s what it was doing.

But I was close enough to see the diagnostic “M” wing pattern. As it’s the only gull with a black head and that pattern, I had my bird.

The photos are all stills from a video I shot by holding my phone up to my scope. 

I continued down the shore and got a little closer to the bird, but it also put it in a direct line with the sun. At this point, it was swimming away from me, and I didn’t see it flutter again. When it turned its head, I was able on one or two occasions to make out the yellow tip on its black bill.

Later, on the other side of the lake, I spotted it, or another one, swimming along the face of the dam.

I chatted briefly with two other birders. I was pronouncing the name of the gull as SAY-beans. They said the first syllable with the “a” in sad and the second syllable as bin, so SA-bins. This got me wondering, so I googled it and discovered that it’s supposed to be pronounced SA (as in sad)-beans. So we were both half right.

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Birding in the Rain

Cassin’s Vireos, which I had never seen, migrate through Colorado in September. It’s the only time of year that they can readily be found. They can show up in pretty much any wooded area, so my strategy to find one was to go birding by trees as often as it took.

On Saturday evening, after Sally and I got back from La Junta, I drove over to work and birded along Monument Branch. There were a lot of birds around—warblers, sparrows, chickadees, etc. I was having a great time.

Meanwhile, a storm popped up right overhead. Storms in Colorado this time of year don’t come in waves. They just build up quickly in a given spot. I took shelter under some scrub oak about halfway down the creek ravine. I figured it put me far below the tallest pines but still far enough above the water so that if lightning struck nearby, I’d have the best chance of surviving. 

When the sun came out over the mountains, it was still raining hard. I saw a rainbow and threw caution to the wind to get some photos and video. That’s my office in the foreground. My window is the third from the left on the second floor. It’s hard to tell in these photos, but the bottom arc of the rainbow was doubled, so this is a complete triple rainbow.

By the time the rain stopped, it was getting dark. I gave up for the day and headed home.

I went back on Sunday evening. Again there were a tone of birds around, including two Warbling Vireos and a Plumbeous Vireo (which used to be conspecific with Cassin’s Vireos).

But again, it began raining, and this time, the storm included hail. I tried to shelter under a pine, but I was still getting pelted. I dashed to a willow bush along the creek. This kept off most of the rain for a bit, but once the leaves got wet, they all pointed down and I got drenched. I finally gave home and dashed for the car. 

I decided to try again on Monday (Labor Day) morning. I drove south of town to Aiken Canyon Preserve. I’d gone about a mile from my car when a morning shower popped up. This one didn’t include thunder. I climbed into the middle of a bunch of scrub oak and waited it out. I had to bend over to protect my phone, camera, and binoculars, so my back got drenched. It lasted about 20 minutes. This time, when the rain stopped, I kept going and was rewarded shortly afterwards by a Cassin’s Vireo. 

The rest of the hike was uneventful, both weatherwise and birdwise.

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Lifer #502 — Cassin’s Vireo

vireo cassinii

Monday, September 3, 2018 — 10:10 am

El Paso County, Colorado — Aiken Canyon Preserve

About 20 years ago, the former Solitary Vireo was split into three species. The eastern form, which I’ve seen many times, is called the Blue-headed Vireo. The southwestern form, which nests in Colorado, is now the Plumbeous Vireo. I’ve spotted several of them since we moved out here. The third form, Cassin’s Vireo, nests in the northwest and migrates through Colorado. It’s fairly rare in the spring, but much more common for a couple weeks in the fall. I’ve never seen one.

The plummage differences between the three species make things challenging. All have bold white spectacles and obvious wing bars. The Plumbeous is almost all gray, but with a touch of yellowish on the flanks in the fall. Cassin’s has more yellow on the flanks and sides and a wash of green on the back and wings.

On Sunday evening, I found a “Solitary” vireo along Monument Creek and got excited for a minute. But as I followed the bird through the scrub oak, I saw that it only had a bit of yellow on the flanks and was otherwise gray.

I went out again on Labor Day Monday morning, this time to Aiken Canyon Preserve.  It was a cool, overcast morning, and I had the place to myself.  I hadn’t gone far before it began raining hard. I took what shelter I could find in a clump of scrub oak, but was soon very wet. When the rain stopped 15 minutes later, I decided to continue instead of heading back to the car. 

I climbed up into a rocky canyon with ponderosa pines and an understory of scrub oak and came upon a mixed flock of birds. Most of them were Pygmy Nuthatches, but I also saw Mountain Chickadees, a Wilson’s Warbler, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, three Western Wood-Pewees, and a “Solitary” vireo. This one had pale yellow all along its sides and flanks. It’s head was light gray, and its back had a greenish wash. 

After getting a good look, I pulled out my camera and attempted to get a photo. It was moving fairly quickly through the lower branches of a pine. I lost sight of it, but found it again about two minutes later. Again I got good looks at the greenish back that contrasted with the gray head and the yellow sides. It flicked its wings a time or two while I was watching—I think I caught it mid-flick in a couple of the photos.

It was still a very gray day, and the bird was back-lit against the sky, so the color doesn’t really come through in the photos, although I can get a hint of the yellow sides. 

It hopped from the pines into some scrub oak, and I lost it. I hung around for another 10 minutes, but didn’t spot it again. I suppose there were about four minutes from when I first saw it until it disappeared.

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Bent’s Old Fort and La Junta

Sally and I took off on Saturday morning and drove to La Junta. We toured Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, a reconstruction of a trading fort on the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1800’s. I’d been there before, in 2012, but Sally hadn’t.

We wandered slowly and saw what there was to see. Nothing much had changed from my last visit.

Peafowl were kept at the fort as an alarm system. They’d spot approaching riders from a distance and begin howling.

Sally tried to befriend a surly cat.

Note the cactus on top of the corral wall to prevent rustlers.

After touring the fort we ate lunch at Lucy’s Tacos in La Junta. The place isn’t fancy, but the food is delicious. 

We also stopped at a couple farm markets between La Junta and Rocky Ford to buy melons, corn, tomatoes, and cider.

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