Colorado is home to more than 400 species of birds and is located in the middle of the Central Flyway — which means it’s a stopover for migrating birds from mid-February until May.
Right now, bald eagles that have wintered in Colorado are pairing up, and migration season starts soon. There’s no better time to get out your birder’s checklist and plan some outings.
- It helps if you don’t mind getting up and out in the dark: Sunrise is the best viewing time, although sunset hours work, too.
- Layer on the clothing (dark or muted colors are recommended since bright colors can distract birds).
- Remember that bird watching often involves standing or sitting still for long periods of time, so warm boots and socks are a must.
- A pair of binoculars gets you a much better look at the birds.
- If you want great photographs, take a camera with a telephoto lens. It is tough to get a good bird photo on a cellphone.
- Bird books or guides are helpful, but if you go to an event or festival there will be plenty of people to help you identify what you’re looking at. Birders are happy to share their knowledge. (I’ve been the beneficiary several times.)
No idea where to go? Not to worry. We’ve sorted through a multitude of bird-watching resources and events to offer up a handful of noteworthy options for novice watchers, general wildlife lovers or seasoned birders. And you don’t have to spend a lot, either: Many festivals and viewing events are free or require only state park admission fees ($8 to $10 per vehicle per day).
First up (and widely recommended in the birding world), go see America’s bird, the bald eagle. If you hurry, you can see a lot of them in a few places.
An estimated 1,200 bald eagles winter in Colorado thanks to conservation efforts and protections that have helped restore their numbers. Barr Lake State Park near Brighton is among the best and most widely known spots to find them.
Eagles can also be found at John Martin Reservoir State Park near Lamar in southeastern Colorado, and you might catch a glimpse of them — along with American peregrine falcons and white pelicans — at Eleven Mile or Spinney Mountain state parks.
Two eagle events are coming up on Feb. 1: the annual Bald Eagle Festival at Barr Lake and Eagle Days at the Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center‘s Raptor Center near Lake Pueblo State Park.
Most eagles will move out of the wintering grounds soon as dominant pairs stake their ground, according to William Bevil, communications manager for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. A pair has been recorded nesting at Barr Lake since 1986, with the first eaglets hatched in 1989. It takes about eight months to raise the hatchlings, so you can return to the park repeatedly to watch the progress — with a good pair of binoculars.
Experts estimate 100 to 150 pairs of bald eagles nest in Colorado each year, and if you miss them this year, they’ll be back in late fall.
Next up, search out the state bird, the lark bunting, on the Eastern Plains. Bevil suggests Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado, where you can see many other bird species as well and perhaps even the more rare mountain plover.
Or, head to the 14th annual Mountain Plover Festival April 24-26 in Karval. Bevil recommends this event because of the community involvement, which includes homestays, community meals and visits to private land. It is one of the pricier festivals, but the $250 registration fee includes all events, meals and activities.
Beginning birders can check out the High Plains Snow Goose Festival Feb. 6-9 in Lamar because it offers heritage tours that combine bird watching with learning about southeastern Colorado. The festival and many lectures are free, but there is a fee for the tours and banquet. Festival director Jessica Medina said hundreds of people come to the area to see huge flocks of snow geese, and many who are more interested in the history of region come for the tours.
That’s true for sandhill crane watching as well. Special tours and events at the Monte Vista Crane Festival in March sell out quickly, but hundreds of people travel to the San Luis Valley over several weeks just to watch the cranes coming in during the evening and flying out at dawn. Cranes can also be spotted near Eckert and around the nesting areas at Steamboat Lake State Park.
Bevil says no birding list is complete without a visit to a sage grouse “lek,” a patch of ground used for a mating display. You can head to Gunnison this spring for that or find a more formal tour for the related greater prairie chicken between March 20 and April 19 with the Wray Chamber of Commerce. The Wray tours require a Friday evening orientation followed by a trip to a viewing trailer the following morning to watch a mating dance.
One more suggestion for that birding bucket list: Visit a banding station this spring or in the fall. There, you’ll see how organizations track and collect data on migratory routes, lifespans and characteristics of birds. The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies runs the stations in conjunction with partners. The one at Chatfield State Park will operate April 27-May 31 this year. Registration is required for weekend visits and for groups. For details, go to birdconservancy.org.
Bird Watching Events
- Bald Eagle Festival at Barr Lake State Park, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Feb. 1. Free with state park admission.
- High Plains Snow Goose Festival, Feb. 6-9, Lamar.
- Greater Prairie Chicken tours, March-April, Wray.
- Monte Vista Crane Festival, March 6-8.
- Eckert Crane Days, March-April. No scheduled activities; come view the cranes.
- Mountain Plover Festival, April 24-26, Karval.
- Ute Mountain Mesa Verde Birding Festival, May 13-17, Cortez.
- International Migratory Bird Day, second Saturday in May in the United States and Canada.
A partnership of CPW, Great Outdoors Colorado and nonprofits provides information and driving routes to sites for viewing birds and other wildlife. Guides can be viewed or downloaded from the website.
The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies promotes conservation of birds and habitats through science, education and land conservancy; offers resources and school and community events.
Audubon Rockies, the regional office of the National Audubon Society, provides education, advocacy and on-the-ground conservation, and offers resources and programs.
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