Aspen Times Weekly: Taking Flight

by Amiee White Beazley


Black swifts, which Audubon calls “North America’s Most Mysterious Birds,” happen to like Colorado. According to Mary Harris, above, these birds prefer specific habitats with cave-like conditions, and many breed behind waterfalls. Researchers have found breeding groups in Ouray, at Hanging Lake, in Redstone and other small pockets. “They are hard to track down because they are difficult to reach populations, and as soon as they fledge, the young fly directly to the Amazon of Brazil where they winter,” she says.


ACES Bird Club meets every Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. in summer, and monthly in winter. Meetings begin with birding at Hallam Lake and then to birding hotspots such as Northstar Preserve, Marolt Open Space or Lower Sunnyside Trail. The third Tuesday of each month ACES Bird Club meets at Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt. “Birding downvalley offers a lot more diversity of species as you get lower in elevation,” says Weiss.

It’s just after dawn and the stormy sky above Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt has only now begun to brighten. Seven birders are standing along the Rio Grande Trail with the ACES Bird Club for its weekly Morning Birding gathering, clutching birding binoculars that hang from their necks. They are silent, their ears and eyes at high alert.

“People love being out at a special time of day watching nature doing its thing,” says Weiss or birding at Rock Bottom and in Aspen at Hallam Lake. “It’s like a well-kept secret out here. Everyone else is in bed and we out there as a pine mountain is feeding on grouse, a bear is swimming across Hallam Lake or baby sand piper chicks are foraging near the water. These are really special encounters in nature, and you feel like you just had this incredible moment.”

Today, these morning birders are just seven of the 51 million bird-watchers in the United States who contribute approximately 36 million dollars to the U.S. economy annually.

“Birds are the most watchable form of wildlife,” says Weiss. “You are always seeing birds and we enjoy trying to identify them. It keeps you in touch with your place and the time of year. You begin to notice when the first hummingbird zooms by in spring, or when the swallows are back. It is an endless learning opportunity, and also a humbling and exciting thing to do.”

Birding as a hobby is growing and seeing a new breed of enthusiast. Athletes and naturalists — who already find themselves outside — are finding new sport in identifying birds. Christy Mahon, ACES development director and modest “outdoor enthusiast,” who most recently climbed and skied all of Colorado’s 100 tallest peaks, with husband Ted and friend and professional skier Chris Davenport, is a recently developed “bird nerd,” first introduced to the study of birding through the Tuesday morning ACES Bird Club.

“I thought I was paying attention to a lot of things when I was outdoors, but birding heightens your awareness,” she says. “You are suddenly seeing things you’ve never seen before and you just can’t stop. My new hashtag is: #alwaysbebirding.”

Now, while mountaineering or on her morning runs, which last from one to three hours (yes, you read that correctly) she incorporates finding and identifying birds through sight or sound, her eyes to the sky searching for hawks and Great Blue Herons, often using two apps on her phone, — iBird West and MerlinBirdID — for quick confirmation.

“When I’m running, I hear or see a bird and find myself running off the trail and into the brush following the birds,” she says. “It definitely slows down my runs.”

Awareness of birds and conservation of the animals and their shrinking habitat is something that brings Mary Harris, president of the Roaring Fork Audubon Society, out every day. She explains that overall the number of birds is declining due to loss of habitat, cat kills, (up to 4 billion in North America every year), window collisions (up to 1 billion each year in the U.S.) and even windmills inappropriately placed. But resident birds and those that make it here during their annual migration from as far away as South America are vital to the health of our forests and larger ecosystem.

“I want people to know how important our native birds are,” she says. “These birds that fly this horrendous voyage, thousands of miles over mountains and oceans, get here just as our forests are blooming — and so are the bugs they eat. It’s this whole crew of migrant workers who have arrived, free of charge; the day crew and the night crew. They work 24/7 on grooming duty, pollinating and cleaning our forests of insects. Without them our forest will die. It’s a black and white issue, and an integral part of our survival.”

All birds, from the smallest chickadee that weights the same as three paperclips to our migrating raptors that patrol the fields, have important roles in balancing the ecosystem, she notes. “Our raptors are one of the apex species like wolves and sharks that contribute to a healthy system,” says Harris. On a recent morning at Hallam Lake, Weiss spotted a turkey vulture, Cooper’s hawk, and an osprey with 14-inch trout.

As a way to introduce the Roaring Fork Valley and, in particular, children, to the raptor’s place in the food chain, and to learn about their vision and speed, ACES has been hosting the annual Raptor Fair, which took place in early July and attracted more than 500 visitors. (The next Raptor Fair at ACES takes place July 3, 2016.) The fair utilizes ACES resident golden eagle, red-tailed hawk and great horned owl. Additional raptors include permanently injured birds from Nature’s Educators, a nonprofit educational organization based in Aurora.

Devin Paszek, executive director of Nature’s Educators, loves the power and beauty of the area’s raptors such as the kestral, eagles, and owls, even if these may be some of the harder birds to spot in the wild.

“Great horned owls are amazing animals, and you have many in the Roaring Fork Valley,” says Paszek. “Think of them at dusk as they sit in tree, move their heads back forth so they can hear from ears on the side of their heads. They have silent flight, and flutings that baffle the sound that blow through their feathers on their wings, and 500 pounds of pressure in their feet. They are like ninjas. You never hear or see an owl coming.”

Throughout the winter, ACES hosts the popular Owl Walks, where kids and adults can walk the grounds around Rock Bottom Ranch to hear and possibly see owls in their natural settings. Even these single nights of education can bring awareness and interest into birding.

“That’s what ACES is all about,” says Mahon. “We provide these experiences so the next time you hear about forests and ecosystems being destroyed and you might ask, ‘What about all those birds in there,’ and you might use less, or vote differently. That’s our ethos. When a person feels it for themselves, that’s when you create change.”

Harris sees more and more interest from novice birders, students and outdoor enthusiasts such as Mahon. It is an approachable hobby open to all regardless of age or athletic ability. All you need to be a birder, Harris says, is a pair of birding binoculars and bird book, of which she recommends the “standbys” such as National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and for beginners, Silbey’s Guide to Birds of Western United States.

“It’s interesting because our valley is more recreation-oriented than it is introspective, but all of a sudden, in the last couple of years, people really want to know what’s out there,” she says. “There is more awareness and people are now talking more about our bird populations and identifying some of our valley’s 244 regularly occurring birds. Many are just realizing that they can open their eyes and ears to different sights and sounds. There are even 9 year olds in the valley who want to start birding.”

ACES offers Morning Birding every Tuesday morning in summer, and monthly in winter. Meetings begin with birding at Hallam Lake and then field-tripping to birding hotspots such as Northstar Preserve, Marolt Open Space or Lower Sunnyside Trail. The third Tuesday of each month ACES offers Morning Birding at Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt. “Birding downvalley offers a lot more diversity of species as you get lower in elevation,” says Weiss.

ACES also offers Evening Birding, Birding on Independence Pass classes, and Eagles, Hawks and Owls demonstrations Monday through Friday at 4 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. While ACES and Roaring Fork Audubon provides many opportunities for guided bird walks, starting is as easy as looking out your own front door.

“Walk around the park and into different habitats,” says Harris. “Each has its own set of birds. As you slowly walk, start to notice, open your eyes and ears.”

Or, if you are Christy Mahon, hike a 14er. Mahon has discovered Colorado Fourteeners-400, a group of people who have summited all of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks and have seen at least 400 species of birds in Colorado.

“There are eight people who have done it and the first woman just finished last year,” says Mahon. “Now that I’ve skied them all, I have the goal of becoming the second woman to do it. It’s my retirement plan.”

Aspen Times Weekly

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