Firestone, Colorado – May 2022
St. Vrain State Park had its beginnings in 1958 when the Colorado Department of Transportation bought some land around St. Vrain Creek to mine gravel needed for the construction of highways in the area. The mining projects left wide but relatively shallow holes in the ground, many of which filled in from the low water table of the St. Vrain. Over the years, more mining companies extracted more gravel, and now St. Vrain State Park has eight ponds and reservoirs, along with 87 campsites in eight different campgrounds. The state park is a popular destination for campers along Colorado’s Front Range; it’s just an hour’s drive from our former house in Denver. We camped there in our former trailer every April for a decade before becoming full-time RVers, and we returned to the shores of St. Vrain State Park in early May 2022.
St. Vrain State Park is a bird enthusiast’s dream destination. The park’s literature lists more than 200 bird species that can be seen in the park’s ponds, wetlands and meadows. Not all of those species are in the park at once; many use the ponds as a migratory rest area on their way to points north or south of Colorado, and others stay in the park for a few weeks or months out of the year. We saw more American white pelicans in the park in 2022 than we had in previous years. Watching them float noiselessly on the surface of the water is a very relaxing experience. When we were camping along the west bank of the Mississippi River in Arkansas a few weeks later, a flock of about 200 pelicans darkened the sky as the birds flew overhead.
St. Vrain State Park is the largest great blue heron rookery in Colorado. Great blue herons are relatively common sights along the banks of the larger ponds in the park; they usually fly off if approached. If one is patiently quiet and still, however, it’s possible to see a heron catch a fish in the shallows. The largest of the heron family, great blue herons can grow to 4 1/2 feet tall and weigh more than five pounds, with a wingspan of 6 1/2 feet. I photographed this one on an early foggy morning on the bank of Sandpiper Pond.
Whenever I think of St. Vrain State Park, the first bird that comes to mind is the red-winged blackbird. Their distinctive call (you can hear it at the soundfile below) can be heard throughout the park practically all day long, but especially in the early morning hours. While I’ve seen red-winged blackbirds perch on waving reeds and cattail stalks, in addition to tree limbs, this one found a solid fencepost upon which to belt out the hits. This is a bird species in which the males and females look nothing alike. This is a male blackbird; I’ve mistaken female blackbirds for some type of sparrow because they share the same light and dark brown markings.
We were happy that our friends Mary and Robert, and their German shepherd, Otis, could camp at the site next to us on one of the weekends we were at the park. Mary, Robert, Otis and I took a walk one morning around Blue Heron Reservoir, the largest and newest of the lakes at the park, and happened to spot this guy out in the water. This photo of a western grebe isn’t great – it was 50 yards out and drifting further away – but it’s an interesting bird. They dive underwater to catch fish, which is their main diet, and it’s kind of fun to guess where they’ll pop up to surface. One of five grebe species that visits St. Vrain State Park, I’d also at Lathrop State Park near Walsenburg in October 2021. seen this species
This well-camouflaged little bird is a song sparrow (I’m pretty sure; there are many varieties of sparrows and most of them look at least a little alike). It was hunting for bugs one evening along the banks of Mallard Pond. Click the link below to see why they got their name.
Nancy and Gunther and I went on a longer hike one Saturday morning and saw a pair of tree swallows feeding their young nestlings inside a tree cavity. This is the female of the pair, who was hanging out on a tree limb and watching her mate feed their kids in the tree. She’s got just a hint of iridescent blue coloring on her head, whereas the male tree swallow is mostly blue. Like other swallows, their diet is mostly bugs that they catch while flying in the air; unlike other swallows, they also eat berries which allows them to make it through winter much easier.
I took this photo of a female brown-headed cowbird a few minutes’ walk down the trail from the swallows’ nest. Cowbirds used to follow bison herds in the American West and forage on insects that were kicked up by the animals’ hooves. These days, they do the same with cattle herds and they’re found from coast to coast. This species has a fairly poor reputation among bird enthusiasts: it doesn’t build a nest in which to lay its eggs but instead lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species. This parasitism, which is practiced by only a few other birds, results in reduced numbers of other songbird species.
I’ll be the first to state that this is a terrible, terrible photo. However, there is a story behind it: a little while after taking the photo of the brown-headed cowbird, we looked up and saw what we thought was a flock of Canada geese flying overhead. I took a picture of part of the flock, and I really don’t know why. After our hike, I looked at the photo on my laptop’s screen and realized that those weren’t Canada geese. Look at the beaks of the birds (they’re flying toward the right side of the photo): they’re very long and slightly curved. I thought they might be ibis (ibises?), and I looked at the park’s literature to see if ibis were ever sighted in the park. Turns out white-faced ibis do indeed migrate through St. Vrain State Park! Here’s a so you can see what these beautiful birds really look like. link to an Audubon Society page
I know some readers of this blog frequently drive on I-25 between the Denver metro area and the northern reaches of the state. This is what’s beneath the bridges just north of Exit 240: thousands upon thousands (not kidding) of cliff swallow nests (those brownish smudges are the cliff swallows returning to feed their nestlings; I couldn’t get any decent photos of the birds themselves because they move so fast). The swallows have built the nests here to take advantage of the great biomass (bugs) available at the ponds and lakes of St. Vrain State Park. It’s important, I think, to remember just what a huge service that bug-eating birds do for us: imagine how many more grasshoppers, caddisflies, and mosquitoes we’d have to deal with were it not for these feathered friends of ours.
The hike that Nancy and Gunther and I went on was chock-full of nifty birds we hadn’t seen before. I had no idea what this was when I took the photo, but I could tell it wasn’t a seagull. Again, after returning to the Goddard, I looked it up. It’s a Forster’s tern (might be another species, the common tern, but Forster’s terns are, inexplicably, more common than common terns). This was an incredibly acrobatic and fast flyer, and much fun to watch during its migratory stopover at the park.
I took this photo of a beautiful barn swallow on the same morning that I took the photo of the great blue heron. The lighting, because of the fog, wasn’t great, but I was happy to see this little fellow light for a few minutes on a stretch of fence. Swallows of all kinds are very aerobatic flyers – they dip and whirl about while chasing bugs over bodies of water. We would see yet another species of swallow, the northern rough-winged, while camping on the Mississippi River in mid-June. There are six species of swallows, including the northern rough-winged, that visit St. Vrain State Park either on a seasonal or migratory basis.
Over the years I’ve probably taken a hundred photos of double-crested cormorants, but they’ve all been taken when the birds are too far away from shore to turn out very well. They seem to like the company of pelicans while swimming (or perhaps they’re opportunistic feeders taking advantage of the schools of fish found by pelicans), but they’re much more timid than the big white birds and stay further from shore. They also take flight well before the pelicans do. The stars aligned during our trip to St. Vrain State Park in May, and I finally got some photos that aren’t embarrassing to share. During our stop I also figured out why these birds look so odd while swimming: unlike pelicans, or ducks, or geese, or pretty much any other waterfowl, they keep most of their bodies submerged. I think cormorants are one of the greatest visual reminders that, in a way, dinosaurs still walk the earth. This guy would not look out of place as an extra in a Jurassic Park movie.
I’ll close with one of the best photos I’ve taken in a good long while. St. Vrain State Park is home to several pairs of nesting ospreys, which return to the same nest year after year, and the number appears to be growing. I noticed a new osprey nest (really not that impressive; it looks like a pile of trash and twigs because that’s what it is) along the road leading into the park, and asked a ranger about it. Turns out that the nest had delayed construction of a section of a long-planned hiking and biking trail that winds its way along the I-25 corridor, at least until the osprey fledglings had left the nest. True enough, work on the trail appeared to recommence a few days before we left, so I guess the fledglings had left home. Anyway, this osprey pictured was perched above Mallard Pond one late afternoon when the sun happened to be shining for a few minutes during an otherwise overcast day. It’s obviously used to passersby, but it’s a beautiful raptor nonetheless. The ponds and lakes have plenty of fish for both anglers and birds, like pelicans, and terns, and grebes, and cormorants. It’s fun to watch a grebe pop out of the water with a fish in its beak, but watching an osprey slam into a lake, talons outstretched, and then lift away with a trout in its grasp is a fantastic experience.
In the two weeks we were at St. Vrain State Park, we saw 26 different species of birds, including five, like the tern and ibis, I’d never seen before at all. We don’t have immediate plans to return to the park, but I don’t doubt that we will go back sooner or later. It’s a great place to unwind, and, although it’s close to I-25, it provides plenty of opportunities to get to know a tremendous variety of our feathered friends.