“We’ve got bush tits, northern flickers, white and red-breasted nuthatches!” exclaims ten-year-old Marieva O’Neil. Her list of local fowl sounds foul, even pornographic, but it’s simply a small sampling of the birds she’s spotted in her backyard.
“There’s a brown creeper,” she adds. “It’s invisible to adults, but I’m able to see it, especially when it moves to grab a bug.”
O’Neil and her mother live in the Hilltop neighborhood, on what they’d thought was a busy cross street — until the pandemic slowed life down. “I’m just surprised that there are so many different birds all around that we’ve never noticed,” admits Marieva’s mother, Lani O’Neil. “The spring blue jays are quite friendly this season, and it’s only our second year we’ve spotted them!”
But then, last spring was the start of the shutdown, which changed everything. “We were home all day and night, especially during those daytime hours when we were typically at work and school,” O’Neil remembers. “We started noticing a hawk on our neighbors’ utility pole, and the curiosity grew from that bird.”
That pole was also near the Orrs’ property, and the bird turned out to be a juvenile red-tailed hawk, in the area hunting smaller songbirds and pigeons.
“We noticed Marieva and her mom outside more often than usual, of course, from the pandemic, but they were constantly pointing and looking at birds,” recalls Becky Orr. “We gave Marieva a copy of Birds of the Rocky Mountains that we had not used in years past and had casually tossed aside until this past spring.”
They helped the budding ornithologist in other ways. “We were very diligent about refilling our front-yard feeders that face the O’Neils and expanding some natural habitat with native plants, additional bird feeders, squirrel-proof houses — the threat of vicious and advantageous city squirrels had us install metal barriers — and the result was exponential!” exclaims Orr.
By summer, Marieva had gone from a bored, bedroom-bound third-grader to an amateur birder.
Her mother encouraged her new interest. “Ace and other hardware stores were steadily open, albeit with strict hours, during the onset of the pandemic, and we [went from] the glass-suction feeders on her window to hanging feeders off the rooftop with fishing line over our back porch,” recalls O’Neil, “and then, eventually, more advanced, wooden-assembled installments from gifts and extra summer supplies such as popsicle sticks, peanut butter and even peanut shells.”
Marieva kept watching birds through brisk autumn evenings and whiteout winter days. She’s now researching programs to become an identifiable member of Denver Audubon and an official spotter, someone who observes a certain area of land for a dedicated time and is familiar enough with the species to do official counts.
The O’Neils weren’t alone in their newfound interest in birdwatching. Many Hilltop neighbors installed bird feeders, keeping them fully stocked. They also did more planting, which resulted in more seeds and berries attracting more birds. As a result, the number of birds in Denver started growing along with the ranks of Denver birdwatchers.
“In terms of larger birds of prey and waterfowl, yes, there has been a large, documented increase in these birds in urban areas,” notes Kate Hogan, community outreach coordinator for Denver Audubon.
“The pandemic is certainly a factor,” she adds. “We have received many, many more individual non- and member reporting of birds and nests. Maybe because Denverites are out and about in their neighborhoods, spending more time in parks, backyards and community spaces than ever before. We have Audubon members who collect data and have been monitoring some field projects for over fifty years, and 2020 to current has been the most active reporting and species documentation ever.”
An article in Audubon, the magazine of the National Audubon Society, detailed how the increase in birdwatching and spotting can be traced to birdseed purchases during the pandemic. Hogan has another way to document the growth. “I can report that the Great Backyard Bird Count, which happens each year in February, noted a 33 percent increase in birding checklists submitted this year in Colorado during a single weekend,” she says.
“If you look at almost every state in the United States, 49 states saw an increase in observations submitted during the Great Backyard Bird Count this past year, and the only state with a reduction was Hawaii,” she notes, “which makes sense if tourists who would usually be birding there are less numerous this year.”
Birds need three resources to survive in a specific area: habitat, water and food. Once Denver became human habitat, many birds had to find other homes that could meet those needs. Over the years, however, protected natural areas, dedicated bird habitat and sanctuary and stricter pollutant enforcement have allowed bald eagles, golden eagles, migratory hummingbirds and dozens of species to become more comfortable in urban settings.
“My friend told me about a nesting pair of bald eagles in Washington Park last December. On my first walk around the interior loop since word of bald eagles, I was easily able to spot the nest and observe the female scanning the area,” says Julie Dunn. Since then, she’s regularly seen the pair.
The bald eagle is the only eagle endemic to North America. The bird’s range covers the continent, from Alaska to Florida; the bird has been sighted in every state of the U.S. except Hawaii.
It’s one of the most popular larger species to spot. A nesting pair of bald eagles might use the same nest for decades, each year adding new material such as twigs, leaves and branches until the nest grows to a spectacular size, as much as five to six feet in diameter and two to four feet tall. The record was set in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1963. That nest, which weighed over two tons, was 9 feet, 6 inches wide and 20 feet deep.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were only about ten nesting pairs of bald eagles in Colorado during the 1970s, when the bird was on the national Endangered Species list. But new federal regulations and state laws changed that status.
“Especially the elimination of the pesticide DDT from the eagle’s environment allowed for more successful nesting and hatching, and laws further protecting eagles and other predatory birds such as hawks, falcons and owls have helped their numbers rebound and increase,” explains Dave Heffernan, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist and amateur birder. “But it’s important that we continue to provide good habitat for their main food sources, such as smaller birds and mammals, to ensure that these predatory birds have food available for themselves as well as their offspring. Simple measures such as installing deterrent on electric poles significantly helped in reducing electrocutions common in decades prior.”
In February, Colorado Parks and Wildlife employees documented 116 bald eagles at Barr Lake State Park during a five-minute scan of the lake and the rest of the landscape. Fifty-three were adults, they determined, and 63 were immature. Eagle cams help birders keep track of the bald eagle babies that hatch every spring, then take off a few months later.
Bald eagles are among the most popular birds to spot, but there are plenty of others to see in the area. “Our state record for diversity of different species is 508, and we currently have 26,392 individual birders submitting formal observations of bird species into eBird.org,” explains Hogan. “I’m just one! But this doesn’t take into account all the ‘backyard birdwatchers’ who may know nothing about eBird or the importance of community-driven science.”
Denver resident Mark Obmascik considers himself an amateur birder. He’s used his increased free time during the pandemic to walk around Cheesman Park and eye birds of prey, such as a rare long-eared owl in Little Cheesman.
“They’re bigger than a housecat sitting perched in a tree,” he says. “You know if you’ve watched Harry Potter.”
Obmascik was the lead writer for the Denver Post team that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. He’s also an author, and his second nonfiction book, The Big Year, was made into a movie starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. For the book, he followed three competitors around the globe during an event known as a Big Year, a grueling, expensive, “extreme” 365-day marathon of birdwatching — in the days before social media made it easier to find out where certain birds could be spotted. “Three guys from completely different walks of life surrender to their obsession for a year, kind of like grown Tom Sawyers,” explains Obmascik. “I used to think birders were these antiquated folks from England with funny hats, khaki attire and book in hand. I was completely mistaken.”
Obmascik is now an official spotter on eBird and has many birding tales of his own. “I was sitting at Bromwell Elementary for their annual Turkey Day lunch one November,” he recalls, “and I got a text message — this was before phone cameras — about a Ross’s gull at Cherry Creek Reservoir. I had to give my son a Snickers both there and back to justify leaving the lunch.”
Obmascik was far from alone. People from across the United States flocked to the reservoir to see the bird, whose normal habitat is in the Arctic Circle. That was a rare sighting, but not the only one Obmascik has made.
“I was once hiking with a politician, a great man, Rob Whitmore, near Mount Democrat,” he remembers. “He’s a talker even at that altitude. We take a break for a moment to look up and see a peregrine falcon, the fastest mammal on earth, pummeling down at nearly 200 miles per hour to claw and capture a rosy finch. He was speechless. I told him, ‘I guess that’s the only thing that gets a politician to shut up!’”
Today, Obmascik is a champion of Colorado’s eastern plains and habitat protection. “There’s this spectacular natural phenomenon hidden in plain view,” he explains. “Birding really opens up the plains to new folks. I find myself in the woods behind Lamar Community College or Two Buttes canyon, near the border of Oklahoma, for incredible bird diversity and unlimited spottings.”
But it might not be that way for long. “Prairie birds are definitely on the decline, and the most displaced in recent years from urbanization in Colorado and nationwide,” Hogan notes. “We’ve taken extreme measures to protect all birds, but these species need attention.”
Andrew Cavan of the Nebraska Crane Trust, a nonprofit overseeing one of the world’s greatest large-bird migrations, understands the need for small changes upstream to protect prairie species. Every spring, over 600,000 sandhill cranes now migrate along the Platte River Valley. But not so long ago, they numbered only in the dozens.
“They’ve recovered really well, and that’s because of flowing water, lack of human encroachment and legislation from upstream,” Cavan says. “The entire sandhill crane migration is dependent upon water from Colorado through the South Platte. None of the birds could survive without effective habitat protection, research and public outreach.”
Obmascik points to another example. “I watched a pair of hawks for over ten years outside of Fraser,” he says. “They would winter in southern Argentina and then come all the way back here to have their fledglings. Without that habitat for nesting and breeding, southern Argentina would be significantly impacted if the bird could not prey and maintain other bird populations.
“How coffee is grown in Colombia helps determine how many songbirds migrate to Denver in the spring,” Obmascik continues. “So many songbirds that we see in Colorado, like American redstart, Wilson’s warbler and prothonotary warbler, spend the winter in Colombia. The broad-tailed hummingbird — the main hummingbird species that breeds in the foothills and mountains of Colorado — migrates here from its winter home in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Each bird weighs about one-tenth of an ounce — so light you could mail ten for the price of a first-class postage stamp!”
Denver birders follow small and large birds alike, sometimes at the same time. Hawks, eagles, falcons and owls all find sustenance in the smaller birds, including the colorful songbirds attracted by those snazzy birdhouses and feeders.
“The first week in April, we were biking near Fairmount Cemetery when a hawk nearly knocked Marieva off of her bicycle,” O’Neil says. “We stopped on the side of the road, as we were completely startled by the bird’s audacity to fly so close.”
It was a Cooper’s hawk, “probably protecting a recent kill for possible chicks,” explains O’Neil, who protected her own chick from the bird’s unexpected flight.
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