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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

An Arsenal of Birds

May 7th, 2012 · 4 Comments

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Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is now a storehouse of live birds and other wildlife. But the arsenal began as a killing field when the U.S. Army started making deadly chemical weapons there in 1942.

In the 1980s Rocky Mountain Arsenal had the dubious reputation of being “the most polluted piece of ground in America,” wrote Mark Obmascik when he was a reporter for the Denver Post. I didn’t know anything about Mark then. Hardly anyone did.

Now he is rich and famous after writing The Big Year, one of the best books about birding I have ever read.

“The first time I met a real birder, I couldn’t tell a tit from a tattler,” is the way Mark opened The Big Year. “I was a cub newspaper reporter, stuck on the graveyard shift and scrambling for some way, any way, to get off. If I wasn’t chasing some awful car accident, I was hustling to find the relatives of a homeless man slashed in a railyard knife fight. Nobody was happy.”

Mark still lives in Denver and is a lot happier now that he writes books. I am in touch with him through Facebook, and I know he is especially happy about the transformation of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal into one of the country’s largest wildlife refuges.

I am also happy to visit this refuge often and in fact have visited it many more times than any of our country’s other 556 national wildlife refuges. I returned there on Sunday for a birding tour.

For two reasons this was one of my best tours of the refuge. We saw a great variety of wildlife, and we had better transportation. Besides birds, we also saw deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, rabbits, a muskrat, and the first raccoon I’ve seen in Colorado.

Unlike all the other refuges that I have explored, Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR offers free tours. We can visit most of this huge refuge — larger than Manhattan Island — only by way of these tours or impracticably long hikes. The new 16-passenger tour bus is a big improvement over the old van in terms of comfort and the small windows that we can open for photography.

The tour that I took had 14 passengers including two volunteer guides plus the driver. I had met three of these people on previous tours.

We saw three species of raptors, the species of birds that I most wanted to see. The first was this Red-tailed Hawk, which is by far the most common hawk in Colorado. This one circled slowly over us as we stopped to view other birds by one of the refuge’s lakes.

The Back-lit Tail of this Hawk is Rather Red

The Back-lit Tail of this Hawk is Rather Red

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The second raptor we saw was a little owl that routinely takes over a prairie dog burrow.

A Burrowing Owl Watches Us

A Burrowing Owl Watches Us

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The third raptor species just flew in. Swainson’s Hawks are back after wintering in the tropics as far south as Argentina.

A Pair of Swainson's Hawks in Deep Conversation

A Pair of Swainson's Hawks in Deep Conversation

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Other birds have also just reached us on their seasonal migration. This Lesser Yellowlegs was hard for us to identify. Several of the birders on the bus thought that it was a Spotted Sandpiper until I happened to comment that my photos showed that this bird has a black beak.

A Lesser Yellowlegs Does Have Yellow Legs

A Lesser Yellowlegs Does Have Yellow Legs

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Only three or four of us saw another migratory bird that none of us had any trouble identifying. We were out of the bus to walk the path between two lakes when one of us spotted this bright bird in the trees ahead of us.

This Yellow-headed Blackbird Stands Out from the Green Leaves

This Yellow-headed Blackbird Stands Out from the Green Leaves

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Every species of living things has a two-word scientific name, a binomial. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus invented this system in 1753, and the world has used it ever since. Without it, the naming of plants and animals would be chaotic. But the names use Latin grammatical forms and are difficult for laymen to remember.

For example, a Lesser Yellowlegs is officially a Tringa flavipes. Both first and last names must be in italics, and only the first name has a capital letter. The official source for the binomials of our birds is the Check-list of North American Birds, which the American Ornithologists’ Union publishes.

Since these names are to learn, most people use common names in their native language. Fortunately, we have standardized official English names for birds. The American Birding Association’s Checklist includes the names of 970 “native North American breeding species, regular visitors, casuals and accidentals from other regions that are believed to have strayed here without direct human aid, and well-established introduced species that are now part of our avifauna.”

Most people who write about birds capitalize these common names, because they are official names. Almost all birds have first and last names in English just as they do in Latin. But one of the birds that I photographed on Sunday has only one name in English. This is the bird known simply as the Killdeer, because some people imagine that its call sounds like “kill deer” (I don’t think so, but hear for yourself at “All About Birds).”

Unlike many of the birds that I saw on Sunday who are visiting for the warm seasons, the Killdeer lives here year round. I see it often, but can’t resist taking pictures of it. I am especially intrigued by its orange
eyes.

A Killdeer is a Shorebird

A Killdeer is a Shorebird

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But the next bird we saw was another migrant. The Western Kingbird, officially Tyrannus verticalis, may not be a king, but it is certainly a tyrant. That’s because it is a member of the tyrant flycatcher family. They aggressively defend their breeding territory.

The first Western Kingbird I saw on Sunday found a metal post for its throne.

A Western Kingbird on its Throne

A Western Kingbird on its Throne

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Then, another Western Kingbird arrived.

A Rival Western Kingbird Arrives

A Rival Western Kingbird Arrives

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The New King Looks a Lot Like the Old King

The New King Looks a Lot Like the Old King

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As you can see, I love to photograph birds in flight when I can. This is such a passion with many bird photographers that we even have a standard abbreviation, “BIF.”

I got some of my favorite BIF shots on Sunday of some of our most familiar birds, Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows. These are also migrating birds, but they have learned to live close to humans. At Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge they have just returned to claim some birdhouses we built for them there.

A Barn Swallow May be Common, But it is Also Colorful

A Tree Swallow May be Common, But it is Also Colorful

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"Sorry! This Nest is Occupied."

"Sorry! This Nest is Occupied."

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She's Leaving Home

She's Leaving Home

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Near the end of the tour we found Barn Swallows — on a rail rather than in a barn.

A Tree Swallow Waves its Wings

A Barn Swallow Waves its Wings.

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Although I had previously photographed all of these species of birds before, seeing them again delighted me. I also saw one common animal that I hadn’t previously photographed since moving to Colorado. This raccoon was shy and got away from us as soon as it could, but not before I got this shot.

A Raccoon Climbs a Tree

A Raccoon Climbs a Tree

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Thirty years ago who would have guessed that an arsenal could contain so much natural beauty.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Beverly Williams // May 8, 2012 at 9:48 am

    I can certainly understand why you keep returning to this site. Great pictures!

  • 2 Patricia Mathews // May 12, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Sure enjoyed this gallery of pictures, beautiful crisp colors, I especially liked the barn swallow. Beautiful.

  • 3 Katrina // Oct 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Thanks for sharing your stories and beautiful photos! Just wanted to let you know you have your tree swallows and barn swallows switched. Tree swallows have the iridescent teal color and barn swallows have the purple-blue back with orange front. :) Also if you have any more pics of raccoons climbing trees and have their full body, I could use some as reference for a painting I’m doing. Thanks!

  • 4 David Mendosa // Oct 18, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Dear Katrina,

    Thank you. I will get the identification fixed. And I will email you separately some photos of a family of raccoons that used to visit my home when I lived in Santa Cruz.

    Namaste,

    David

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