White As Snow

During January’s excursion to seek out the Pink-footed Goose, a rare European visitor in North America, I also beheld a handful of Snow Geese, mixed in with gaggles of Canada and Cackling Geese. In February, my attendance at Lamar’s 17th Annual (my first) High Plains Snow Goose Festival in Colorado’s southeastern corner, exposed me not only to a handful, but to a multitude of Snow Geese on their late winter northward migration. During various festival-associated field trips, we saw and heard Snow Geese nearly incessantly—feeding on fields, flying in formation, or floating on lakes—in numbers that ranged from single birds to thousands.

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We birders good-naturedly ridicule ourselves for willingly forsaking sleep to catch the early bird, so to speak. On the event’s final day, a sunrise trip was offered to a reservoir, where Snow Geese are known to roost. Seven of us gathered at the meeting place at 5:15 AM, before we climbed onto the school bus that carried us to our destination in utter darkness. Once there, our driver turned off the engine, and we were greeted by countless bird voices, even before we could discern the whitish ribbon of their mass at the water’s edge in the graying morning light.

According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife ranger who accompanied us, we were looking at 15,000 geese. The day before, he had counted 40,000. As the sun slowly bathed the scene in an auburn glow, one vociferous skein after another arrived, carrying an estimated 10,000 additional birds. They gathered along the far shore of the lake, and I was unable to capture a single close-up. Fortunately, I had no trouble approaching the migrant geese winging their way through a beautiful mural in downtown Lamar, and they are depicted in the topmost photo.

One of the reasons the birds kept their distance—hunting. They were wary of humans. Like many nature lovers, I have mixed emotions about this activity. Not a hunter myself, I am nonetheless aware of the necessity of controlling certain animal populations. Snow Geese winter in the US or Mexico and migrate all the way to the Canadian and far-northern Alaskan tundra for the breeding season. Global warming and civilization have benefited their species. Earlier snow melts in the Arctic prolong the breeding season, and the availability of man-made reservoirs and agricultural crops in what was once wild prairie, improve survival during their twice-yearly journey. They have, however, been too successful, and depletion of their precious Arctic habitat is of concern not only for themselves, but also for other animals.

Even though it saddens me to visualize people shooting at these beauties with guns instead of with cameras, my rational self knows this is a necessary and beneficial intervention. We no longer live in Eden, where nature can balance itself. It is easy to criticize hunters, but in many instances their fees help protect crucial animal habitat, and their actions help maintain healthy populations. Instead of disparaging one another, we need to collaborate to tackle today’s challenges. “We’re all in this together,” as Red Green has long been telling us.


To look for one bird in a flock of thousands is like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. When I arrive at Milavec Reservoir in Frederick, about 100 miles north of Colorado Springs, on this early January day and am greeted by the resounding calls of countless Canada and Cackling Geese, I know that my chances of finding my hoped-for goose are slim. Ever since the report a few weeks ago of the first-ever Colorado appearance of a Pink-footed Goose, which typically breeds in Greenland and Iceland, and overwinters in Northern Europe, a great buzz has energized the regional birding community. Occasional sightings in Canada or the East Coast have occurred, but this species’ presence in our state is sensational.

I am not the only one with binoculars on this frosty morning—two fellow bird enthusiasts are scanning the lake with their optics, and I make their acquaintance. Joe, who has already seen the bird twice, has brought his brother, Steve, to show him this rarity. As on so many previous occasions, I benefit from the heart-warming kindness of strangers, because Joe’s subsequent discovery of the goose allows me a brief glimpse—just long enough to capture two photographs—before I lose it in the ceaseless ebb and flow of myriad geese. I clearly notice its short beak, responsible for its scientific name, Anser brachyrhynchos (Anser is Latin for goose, and brachyrhynchos is Greek for short-billed). Interestingly, the German common name, “Kurzschnabelgans,” reflects the short beak, whereas the English focuses on another prominent feature, the birds’ feet, described by Joe as “bubble-gum pink.”

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Alas, I never see the goose’s legs, but I do not mind terribly, especially when I realize that other seekers, who arrive a little later, do not get to observe any part of the bird. I indulge in the enjoyment of other geese, whose visits to Colorado are limited to wintertime.

This Pink-footed Goose makes my birding heart beat happily, and even though it is far off-course, reminds me of the amazing miracle of bird migration that spans our one-of-a-kind globe, of the interconnectedness of all living beings, and of the desperate need to get our act together, so that our fellow creatures may continue their age-old movements across continents, which have inspired humans since the dawn of consciousness.

Flying Jewels

One of the perks of living in North America is the yearly visitation by winged creatures so fabulous, they might have flown out of the pages of a fairytale. Named for the hum or trill created by the wings of some of the world’s 340 species, hummingbirds’ amazing appendages beat 50 to 60 times per SECOND, but brief bursts exceeding this frequency are possible. With an average lifespan of 4 years, and a maximum of 12, as one banded individual attested, this amounts from 7 BILLION wingbeats in shorter-lived birds, to about 21 BILLION in “longevitous” individuals. Their capability to propel themselves forward, backward, sideways, up, and down, and to hover in place, must be every flight engineer’s envy.

These fairy-like beings are among the most wonderful of avian wonders. Compared to Cuba’s Bee Hummingbird that weighs under 0.1 ounce (0.07, to be exact), and measures 2.4 inches in length, the Giant Hummingbird of the Andes tips the scale at a ponderous 0.8 ounce, and reaches 9 inches between tip of beak and tip of tail, though most species are from 3 to 6 inches long. To support the pumping wings and pumping heart which contracts 250 times per minute when resting, up to 1200 plus times when active, their metabolism, the highest of any homoeothermic animal, is about 100 times that of an elephant. In an attempt to conserve energy at nighttime and during cold spells, they enter a state of torpor not unlike hibernation, during which their core temperature and heart rate plummet. Even though not all species equal the Rufous Hummingbird’s twice yearly migration from Mexico to Alaska, and back, approaching a round-trip of 10,000 miles, most easily qualify for the frequent flyer club.

Apart from catching protein-rich aerial insects, hummingbirds are predominantly nectarivorous and frequent flowers whose blossoms accommodate their long, needle-like beaks from which they lap up the liquid with their long tongues, but they are amenable to man-made nectar proffered in feeders. Because many gravitate to shades of red, commercial feeding stations usually incorporate this color. The recommended mixture of four parts water and one part sugar sounds sweet enough, but I have a friend who uses both parts equally. His saccharine liquid is the stuff of hummingbird legend.

Sexually dimorphic, females tend to be slightly larger and may be surprisingly plain and easily confused, whereas males are typically more colorful. Iridescent hues are the result not of pigment, but of feather structure. The throats of adult males may seem black in dim light, but when hit by sunshine, suddenly shimmer and shine in shades borrowed from the rainbow. These resplendent patches are called gorgets, from the French word gorge, meaning throat, but might be derived from their gorgeous appearance as well. Paradisiacal in look only, their behavior is anything but. Territorial and aggressive, they regularly chase one another from food sources, leading to a paradoxical waste of energy.

The male performs J-, U-, or O-shaped courtship dives, accompanied by vibrant buzzing of his wings. Once his bravado behavior and sparkly plumes dazzle a girl, he performs his evolutionary duty, then takes off for other pursuits. Females build nests the size of walnuts, and lay eggs the size of beans. The typical clutch of two is tended to by the mother alone, until the young ones are ready to fledge after three weeks.

Of the three hundred-plus hummingbird species that solely exist in the Americas, 24 spend part or all of their lives in North America, and 4 of them occur regularly in our corner of Colorado. Their appearance in mid- to late April, often while a late blizzard blows and blankets burgeoning blossoms in white, is a longed-for and cherished sight, and the beginning of their all-too brief sojourn in our latitudes. My heart, still gladdened by their presence, is saddened by the knowledge that these precious creatures will soon move on.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), male, breeds at elevations of up to 10,500 feet, where nighttime temperatures often drop below freezing. Männlicher Breitschwanzkolibri, kann auf Höhen bis zu 3,200 Metern brüten, wo es nachts oft gefriert.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), male, with pink gorget clearly visible. Männlicher Breitschwanzkolibri, dessen pinkfarbenes Halsband gut sichtbar ist.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird, female (Selasphorus platycercus), with protruding tongue. Weiblicher Breitschwanzkolibri, mit sichtbarer Zunge.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), male, the “bully of bullies” at the feeder. Männlicher Zimtkolibri, oder Rotrücken-Zimtelfe, einer der aggressivsten Kolibris.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), male, whose flame-red gorget appears golden in the sunlight. Männlicher Zimtkolibri, dessen feuerrotes Halsband im Sonnenlicht goldfarben erscheint.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), female. Weiblicher Zimtkolibri.

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), male, the smallest bird in the United States (it weighs 0.1 ounce). Männliche Sternelfe, der kleinste Kolibri in den USA (er wiegt 2,7d Gramm).

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), male. Männliche Sternelfe.

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), male, with magenta throat stripes. Männliche Sternelfe mit pink-violettfarbenen Halsstreifen.

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), female. Weibliche Sternelfe.

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), male. The black chin is not seen, and the gorget does not appear purple, as it might in the sun. Schwarzkinnkolibri. Das schwarze Kinn ist nicht sichtbar, und die lila Kehle nur andeutungsmäßig.

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), female. Appears slender, long-billed, and does not have reddish flanks. Schwarzkinnkolibri, weiblich. Erscheint schlank, langschnäbelig und hat keine Rottöne.

Seeing stunning hummingbird photos by many capable photographers reminds me of my woeful state of photographic ineptitude, but I hope I still captured the charisma of these magnificent marvels.

Gone to the Ducks

Birders regularly recall the trigger bird that stopped them in their tracks and awakened their curiosity about the avifauna. While I can’t name one particular trigger species, I owe my fascination for feathered friends to the manifold ducks that migrate to Alaska during the summer. When my husband and I called this northernmost state home in the early 2000s, my interest was aroused whenever we chanced upon colorful waterfowl on the myriad bodies of water that pepper the state. I went so far as to invest in a guide book to Alaskan birds, and even owned a CD with recordings of regional birdsong, but being rather consumed by professional life then, I birded only incidentally.

Ducks, geese and assorted additional water-associated avians are rewarding for beginning birders because their size makes them visible on the water’s surface, and they commonly stay in one place for extended periods, facilitating their proper identification. Now that we no longer live in “The Last Frontier” with its legendary biodiversity, I regret not having dedicated more time to ornithological pursuits there.

My fondness of ducks, nonetheless, abides. It so happens that within walking distance of our current residence in Colorado Springs, two lakes provide habitat for assorted waterfowl.

Quail Lake with view of Pikes Peak

Doubletree Pond with view of Cheyenne Mountain

 I did not acquire a digital camera until we were in the process of closing our Alaska chapter, and consequently don’t own electronic photos of the beautiful winged creatures encountered there. Instead, I would like to share pictures of some of the visitors of these urban oases in Colorado Springs who, likewise, have stolen my heart. Unlike other birds, they stay (or arrive) here in winter and help brighten the darker days.

Mallards are our most common ducks…

…and Canada Geese our most common geese

Northern Shovelers have spatulas for bills

Hooded Mergansers are spectacular in…

…and out of the water

Common Goldeneye, I wonder why

American Wigeon, aka “bald pate”

Doubletree Pond in winter

This, of course, does not qualify as waterfowl, but when I saw this white dove at the Doubletree Pond on January 1, it embodied all my hopes: Peace on Earth for this new year.

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A Silver Ring

To observe birds in their natural setting is one of my favorite pastimes. Binoculars are generally indispensable to properly identify a species from a distance, because most will not tolerate being encroached upon. Seeing wild birds from close-up is a rare privilege. Banding stations offer such views. One I am familiar with and have visited repeatedly is located not too far from Colorado Springs at Chico Basin Ranch, in the eastern reaches of El Paso County.

In addition to being an environmentally-conscious, conservation-oriented, active cattle ranch, Chico Basin is the number one birding hotspot in El Paso County as its terrain lies along a migratory route. For that reason, the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, under the auspices of the US Department of the Interior, organizes a four-week banding event staffed by master banders each spring and fall. Nets are erected in densely vegetated areas, and avians that get entangled in the fine mesh are carefully extracted. To keep them calm and protected until their evaluation, they are enclosed in hand-sewn cotton bags corresponding to their various sizes, and hung on a numbered rack according to the nets where they were found.

Chico Basin Ranch Banding Station, with seating for school classes and other interested observers

When it is the bird’s turn, it is pored over painstakingly. Its feathers are examined, fat stores assessed, wingspan and tail length measured. Age and sex is determined with the help of additional parameters, such as state of plumage, degree of skull ossification, and stage of molting. When a captive’s identity is still uncertain, beak and other, more arcane measurements are in order. Banding stations are repositories of the tools of the trade, and of relevant ornithological literature. A copy of the Bible of banders, Peter Pyle’s Identification of North American Birds is mandatory, as is the tabular version which enumerates numerous pertinent details about distinguishing features of each species. Nobody knows everything, but every bander knows where to look up information. And fast, to limit the amount of handling time and stress.

A light, numbered aluminum band, that does not interfere with flight, is then selected from a neatly organized tackle box, and fastened to one leg, based on that extremity’s thickness. Experienced banders know which diameter to choose, but a nifty gauge, or one of many lists can assist in the selection. Its unique serial number allows tracking of avian movements over vast distances. Recapture at the site of original banding to which individuals may return during future migrations occurs not infrequently. I was surprised to learn that the likelihood is only 1 in 10,000 in a different location. Very recently, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published an online article about a Yellow Warbler being banded in northern Colombia, before it was re-captured in New York State 2 months and 2300 miles later, no small sensation.

The final step consists of establishing the bird’s weight by placing it head first in a tube large enough to hold it, while immobilizing it sufficiently to prevent injuries. That accomplished, it either wriggles out on its own once the cylinder is held horizontally, or, more typically, the bander extricates it, cups it between two hands, then slowly lifts the uppermost. After this ordeal, the feathered creatures fly off into the adjacent trees, a few immediately, others following a moment of reorientation.

The Yellow-breasted Chat from the photo above is being weighed

While all this measuring is going on, the information needs to be recorded as well.

The differing reactions to their capture are equally fascinating. Some individuals seem silent and subdued, others anxious and agitated. A few appear utterly indignant at their confinement and express their displeasure vocally and voluminously.

White-eyed Vireo, a rare visitor in El Paso County

Spotted Towhees occur more frequently

Blue Jays are among the most vocal captives…

…as are Brown Thrashers…

Raptors, like this Cooper’s Hawk, are feisty and fierce (and seldom founds in the nets)

Banders in action are reminiscent of dancers in an artfully choreographed performance. Birds, the beguiling ballerinas, are gently but assuredly lifted, repeatedly rotated, and finally released. As I watch these winged wonders vanish into the foliage, I wish them smooth sailing. May they gain enough weight during their layover to carry them securely to their wintering grounds, find sufficient habitat and nourishment there, and bless us with their presence again come spring.

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