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Thread: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2011
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    Default My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    I haven't been doing much bird photography this year, but I just returned from a short trip to Fort Collins, Colorado to photograph a Golden Eagle nest that was reported on ebird. While there I also hoped to find Burrowing Owls and American Avocets in breeding plumage. This turned out to be a very productive trip so I wanted to share some of my experiences and images.

    I always enjoy the drive to Colorado. US-287 from Wichita Falls to the city of Yellow passes through a string of small towns just south of the Red River all of which are struggling to survive in this Age of the Internet, each an echo in its own way of Anarene from The Last Picture Show. The land south of Amarillo is punctuated by center-pivot irrigation farms that draw water from the Ogallala Aquifer. This area is best seen from space using the infrared-sensitive eyes of remote sensing satellites. The resulting view reveals a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors that looks more like abstract pointillist art than scientific data:
    http://remotesensingart.com/highplains2.html

    The route north from Amarillo passes by a helium mine on the way to Xit Ranch country (who knew helium came from mines?). All helium on earth was created during the Big Bang, so the next time you get a helium-filled balloon, realize that its contents are 13.8 billion years old. The only way to obtain more helium other than mining is by nuclear fusion, a process we have not yet mastered.

    From Dumas the route turns west to Dalhart, then Texline before entering the volcanic landscapes of northeastern New Mexico. During this stretch the railroad line that parallels the highway most likely will have several coal trains each of which pulls a seemingly endless line of cars filled with coal from Wyoming. This coal will fuel power plants in Texas and surrounding states, converting in a few days all that carbon into greenhouse gases. Almost always there will be some Pronghorn Antelopes visible from the highway as well. On this trip I was lucky and found a large male with his harem and a pregnant female close to the road.








    Trivia question: pronghorns can sustain speeds as fast as 55 mph for 1/2 mile, much faster and longer than its sole predator, mountain lions. Why did pronghorns evolve to be so much faster than its predator?

    At Raton, NM, the route takes I-25 north into Colorado. The forests around Raton Pass suffered a fire several years ago which makes it easier to spot the remains of an old Spanish mission on the west side of I-25 shortly after crossing the state line. Fort Collins is in far northern Colorado, so the route passes numerous front range landmarks such as the Spanish Peaks, Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, the distinctive chapel of the Air Force Academy, Mount Evans and Rocky Mountain National Park, before finally reaching Fort Collins.

    I arrived there early Wednesday afternoon. My first stop was Coyote Ridge trail which passes by a large prairie dog town reported to have Burrowing Owls in residence. Apparently the official greeter for this trail is a Western Meadowlark who was singing loudly in the parking lot.



    Unfortunately I didn't see any owls, but the prairie dogs were out enjoying this warm afternoon.





    Of course, where there are prairie dogs there also will be predators such as these Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead and engaging in some aerobatics.







    My next stop was Horsetooth Mountain park which has a trail from which the eagle nest is visible. It's about a 40 minute hike on a well-maintained, but steep, trail to get to a good viewing spot. The nest is located in a large outcrop and I was relieved to see that momma eagle was there.



    Since she was standing on the edge of the nest, I assumed her eggs had hatched, but no chicks appeared while I was there. I couldn't stay long because the weather was about to change dramatically.

    [to be continued]

    Larry

  2. #2
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    Default Re: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    As I hiked back down the trail I saw a hummingbird hovering above a tree.



    Then a Steller's Jay landed on the trail ahead of me.





    I began to worry about how I was going to pack 25 lbs of scope, tripod, cameras, and water up this trail that begins at an altitude of 5800' and goes up steeply from there. But the weather solved that problem for me. By the time I got back to the parking lot clouds began to roll in bringing with them light rain and much cooler air. Then that evening, all day Thursday, and part of Friday morning we had a late Spring blizzard that dropped 6" of snow on Fort Collins and up to 36" at higher elevations. Since the trail to the nest stays on the north side of the mountain, I knew it would not be useable during the time I could spend in the area. So I needed a plan B.

    Late Thursday morning I went to the Alleycat Cafe next to the CSU campus for some coffee and food (both excellent) while I processed some images from the previous day and researched plan B. I found a reference to another nest in a cliff above the Cache la Poudre (pronounced poo-der) River and the Watson Lake fish hatchery, but I wasn't sure how accessible it would be. From the cafe I watched the snow on a railing outside go from about 2" deep to 4" during the 90 minutes I was there. Finally on Friday afternoon the skies began to clear and I went out to drive around the area, enjoying the snow-covered scenery while looking for avocets. I didn't find any avocets so I drove up to the fish hatchery to see if I could get anywhere near that nest.

    I was very pleased to find there was a dirt road that went between the lake and river to a parking area with restrooms which turned out to be about 200 yards from a good spot to see the nest. Nice! Now I wouldn't have to hike up a steep trail for 40+ minutes with 25 lbs of gear on my back.

    Just after turning onto this road I spotted both mountain and western bluebirds in a snow-covered field.






    After parking my truck I could see there were two nests in the cliff. While I was trying to determine which one was active, the eagles appeared.











    It was thrilling to watch those magnificent birds soar alongside the cliff face. But what about the nest?

    [to be continued]

    Larry

  3. #3
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    Default Re: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    Larry,
    I'm really enjoying these photos. The photo showing the top side of the Golden Eagle is my favorite. I hope you don't mind my interjecting into this post, but I just wanted share my one Golden Eagle sighting. Two summers ago in McKitrick Canyon, June I believe it was, I was staked out near the creek at The Grotto on a hot day. The first hour or so was fairly active, but I was struggling to ID a few flycatchers. After a while, I moved closer to the sound of running water. Nothing was going on. I was going to have to get back to the parking lot due to limited daylight. All of the sudden a small black bird chirped a loud and frantic warning call as it darted across the creek. From around the adjacent mountainside I saw one bird I was not expecting to see. I have no idea how high it really was, but it seemed to be less than 100' above me. I got to watch it gracefully flying, with slow wingbeats, down the length of the creek until it disappeared around the next mountainside. To this day, that is my most memorable birding experience.

    Looking forward to more of your trip.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    I watched as one of the adults flew to the nest and a little white head popped up!











    So there is at least one eaglet in the nest. As the adult flew off, another head popped up!





    I went back to the nest Saturday morning and took some more shots, although nothing as dramatic as the ones from the previous day.



    I'm not sure what momma is saying to dad here:





    Eventually momma settled into the nest as did the eaglets while dad went hunting. I packed up my gear and went back to get some lunch. These shots are why I came here so any others I managed to get would be a bonus. I didn't realize at the time how large that bonus would be.

    [to be continued]

    Larry

  5. #5
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    Default Re: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    There are quite a few parks and open spaces with trails and ponds in and around Fort Collins, so after lunch I drove to several of them and eventually found a pair of Avocets. Since they are in their drab non-breeding plumage when they migrate through DFW, I had never seen them in breeding plumage with rusty orange neck and head feathers.





    Late in the afternoon I went back to the golden eagle nest. Momma was stil in the nest and only one eaglet showed itself.





    As the sun was about to set behind the mountains, dad came back and landed on his night spot close to the nest.



    Once again I packed up and left. When I got to the south end of the lake next to the hatchery, a bald eagle landed on a pole overlooking the hatchery ponds.





    Bald eagles are recent arrivals to this area so they generate more excitement among locals than do golden eagles. The ponds were protected by nets so after a short time the bald eagle flew off.





    What a great ending for the day!

    [to be continued]

    Larry

  6. #6
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    Default Re: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    My plan for Sunday was to drive out to Pawnee National Grasslands before heading back home. As soon as I entered the grasslands it became apparent that this was Lark Bunting heaven.







    The males frequently would perform their song flight, flying up about 25' then singing at the apex of their flight so they could be noticed by females in this tree-less landscape. Horned Larks were there as well.





    Western Kingbirds were fairly numerous.



    I also saw several sparrows. I'm not sure about their ID's, so I'm just guessing here.
    Chipping Sparrow?



    Clay-colored Sparrow?



    Grasshopper Sparrow?



    [to be continued]

    Larry

  7. #7
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    Default Re: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    In the distance I could see a group of about 15-20 Swainson's Hawks circling above a wet playa. A few of them flew close enough for me to get some ID shots.





    Apparently where I had stopped to photograph the hawks was too close to a meadowlark's nest so momma started giving her distress call while trying to lead me away from her nest.



    I didn't want to disturb her further so I left. Finally, as I neared the end of the auto tour I spotted a former prairie dog town. I stopped to look for Burrowing Owls and saw several in the distance. Unfortunately they wouldn't let me get close and the sun overhead gave harsh lighting for this scene, so I was only able to get some ID shots of the owls.





    I hope to be able to return in a few weeks. If so I'll come here late in the afternoon for better lighting and with luck also see some owlets outside the burrows.

    I left the grasslands very happy about all the new birds I was able to photograph on this trip. I went north to I-80 and then east into Nebraska before turning south to get back home. However, the weather once again intervened in my favor. Not long after passing the geographic center of the continental U.S. in Kansas, I saw storms ahead. Not wanting to drive through the rain, I decided to backtrack west a little before turning south again to avoid those storms. I looked at the map for any wildlife refuges I could visit during my detour and found Quivera NWR. Even though it was well past migration time, I hoped there might be some interesting resident birds and late migrants to photograph while I waited for the storms to move east. There were.

    As I neared the entrance to the refuge I saw a Road Runner cross the road ahead of me. Fortunately it stopped running briefly and posed for me.





    I've only gotten quick glimpses of road runners before so I was very excited to get some shots of this iconic bird. Then I saw several wild turkeys across the highway that were running toward some woods after they saw me stop.



    Once I was in the refuge I saw an abundant number of Red-headed Woodpeckers.





    By now this trip had greatly exceeded my expectations, but I continued driving in the refuge and entered its Wildlife Drive. The refuge had a few more bonuses for me on that drive.

    [to be continued]

    Larry

  8. #8
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    Default Re: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    There was a small group of Black-necked Stilts at the edge of one of the ponds.



    Apparently they were nesting nearby because they fussed at me when I stopped, but I was far enough away that they didn't fly at me. After taking a few shots I continued until I got to another salt marsh where more stilts, some avocets, and various shorebirds were feeding. This time it was the avocets who started fussing at me to stay back. One avocet flew toward me to show my limits.

    Here comes the flying ice pick!









    It was fun watching those delicate-looking stilts running around with their long pink legs.



    A few late migrants were there including Wilson's Phalaropes,



    I'm not sure about the next three ID's.
    Snowy Plover?



    Stilt Sandpipers?



    Semipalmated Sandpipers?



    There also were two groups of White Pelicans in the far distance, too far away to get any decent shots. I've gotten spoiled by how close we can get to White Pelicans at Sunset Bay on WRL.

    [to be continued]

    Larry

  9. #9
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    Default Re: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    When I first saw this ibis in the marsh, I wondered how a glossy got way out here. But then it turned so I could see its face and I recognized it as a White-faced Ibis.





    All good things must come to an end, so time to head back to Texas. Somehow it was fitting, after I left the refuge and was driving on a county road to connect with the highway to Wichita, that I would see a pair of pheasants in a field next to the road. I wasn't able to stop in time to photograph them on the ground, but my last shot of the trip was this pheasant flying away over the field, a metaphor for all the good fortune I experienced on this trip.



    Hope you enjoyed the story and images. Until next time,

    Larry

  10. #10

    Default Re: My trip to Colorado for Golden Eagles

    What a fantastic trip and wonderful shots. So many birds I've never seen. Thank you for sharing them. One tid bit of information. Avocets were on my bucket list, had never seen them, breeding or otherwise. To my surprise, on May 2, 2017, there were 2 of them, in breeding plumage with one brighter than the other so probably mates, on the upper spillway of White Rock lake and close enough to get fairly decent photos. I was thrilled. Bottom line, you didn't have to go that far to see avocets apparently.

    Again, thank you so much for sharing your trip photos.
    Kaptured by Kala

    http://kapturedbykala.com

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