St. Vrain State Park

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 seen this species at Lathrop State Park near Walsenburg in October 2021.
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 link to an Audubon Society page so you can see what these beautiful birds really look like.
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.

Spring Birds of the American Southwest

March and April, 2022

The Goddard spent the fall and winter of 2021-2022 in New Mexico and then Arizona, and in the spring we headed back north to visit Colorado for a while. Spring is a great time to watch birds: they’re very active as they gather material for nests and later find food for their fledglings. Leaves on trees also begin to emerge as the weather warms up, which I was to discover makes photographing birds much more difficult than in the fall and winter.

Here are some birds we saw doing their spring thing in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Holbrook, Arizona

Our campground in Holbrook was next to a residential area, which doesn’t happen very often because usually campgrounds are on the outskirts of towns. It gave us a chance to walk by houses and see birds perched in the trees.

This female house finch was busy gathering materials for a nest at our campground in Hollbrook. Finches have really pretty songs, and they’re enjoyable to listen to in the morning. House finches are an interesting story: they’re native to the American southwest and Mexico, but profiteers captured some finches in the 1940s and attempted to sell them as “Hollywood finches” to bird enthusiasts in New York City. Rather than face prosecution for violating a federal law regarding migratory birds, the people released the finches into the wild and the birds established themselves on the U.S. east coast. In the ensuing years, they’ve moved both east (from the southwest) and west (from the east coast) to be found across nearly the entire country.
Here is the mate of the house finch, watching the sunrise the same morning. I’m sure he later helped build the nest, too. The reddish coloration of male house finches changes with the seasons and is dependent on the birds’ diets; as you’ll see, some male house finches are redder than others. For their size, finches have some powerful beaks.
This is a very common bird, the house sparrow, but it’s a very pretty one all the same. Mornings are a great time to take photographs of birds because the sun is low in the sky to provide dramatic lighting, and the birds themselves are fairly active.

Grants, New Mexico

The campground at which we stayed in Grants, New Mexico, at the end of March had an adjacent walking trail that wound through a lava field. A relatively recent volcanic eruption, perhaps only 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, produced the black basaltic rock that is everywhere around Grants. The campground’s trail attracted a lot of birds that perched on the trees and shrubs within the lava field, including this female white-crowned sparrow that was singing a pretty song one morning. It was the fifth species of sparrow I’d seen during our stays in New Mexico and Arizona. We really enjoyed this trail, which also provided great views of the surrounding mountains. A national monument, El Malpais (Spanish for “the badlands”) is very near Grants, and we look forward to visiting it in the future.
Here’s the other male house finch I alluded to earlier. Dunno what he’s eating to get all of that red coloration, but he’s definitely the reddest finch I’ve ever seen. This was in the campground at Grants; I have a bunch of photos of different birds perched on different types of water valves at campgrounds, for some reason.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Our next stop on our return north was Albuquerque, which Nancy and I really enjoy visiting. There’s a lot to see and do there, and plenty of great Mexican restaurants and grocery stores to enjoy.

We returned to Albuquerque’s excellent Botanic Garden at the city’s BioPark, which also has a zoo and aquarium situated along the Rio Grande near downtown. In early April the garden had thousands of blooming bulbs, including daffodils, tulips, crocus, and others, as well as a lot of neat birds. This is a male white-crowned sparrow; compare him to the pretty female white-crowned sparrow from the Grants lava field, two photos above. This guy was hunting for bugs on one of the garden’s trails.
We watched this mountain bluebird bring a grub to its nest in a tree near the Botanic Garden’s farmstead exhibit. I really like the hue of blue, which contrasts nicely with their rusty chests, on these birds.
Gunther and I went for a walk on a trail along the Rio Grande bosque one afternoon and I heard this fellow singing in a cottonwood tree. I couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was at the time because it was so far away, but I got a couple of photos with my telephoto lens. I was a little surprised to see, after looking at it on my laptop, that it’s a spotted towhee. I’d never seen one in a tree before; I’ve only seen them on the ground, scratching through leaves while looking for bugs. (Of course, the next day we went to the city’s Botanic Garden and we saw another spotted towhee there, in a tree.) Spotted towhees are really pretty birds – they’ve got a lot of patterns and colors going on.
On that same walk we saw several wood ducks, including this very striking drake, swimming in a canal adjacent to the Rio Grande. I’d never seen wood ducks prior to our first stop in Albuquerque last November. They’re just incredibly beautiful birds (and the hens are quite pretty as well).

Las Vegas, New Mexico

In mid-April we made our way to Las Vegas, which we had also stayed at the previous fall. It was incredibly windy during our stay there in the spring (and the area would be subjected to several wildfires shortly after we left), so we didn’t venture out much. I did take a few photos at the campground, though.

This is a western bluebird, perched on a power line and watching me as I watched it. This is the same species from the cottonwood tree in the Albuquerque Botanic Garden. I’m writing this post while camping in central Arkansas, and I kind of miss those clear blue skies of New Mexico and Arizona. We sure don’t miss the wind, though.
Writing about blue skies: this mountain bluebird nearly disappears into them. We’ve seen this species in Colorado several times, including at the cabin near Eleven Mile Reservoir. You can see that the wind was blowing: look at the feathers on his chest.

Lathrop State Park, near Walsenburg, Colorado

We returned to Colorado around the end of April, choosing to camp once again at one of our favorite state parks. Located west of Walsenburg in the southern part of the state, Lathrop State Park has two large lakes, good hiking trails, and incredible views of the Spanish Peaks and Blanca Peak, each of which still had snow. The park attracts an enormous number of permanent and migratory birds each year.

We’d seen a couple of American robins, our first of the spring, at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, but I couldn’t get any good photos. There were plenty of robins at Lathrop. I’ve learned to recognize their calls, which are really distinctive once you’ve heard them enough.
I hiked through the cactus and brush (you’ll notice that most of these songbirds at Lathrop are perched on juniper) north of our campsite one morning and took this photo. I had no idea what kind of bird it was until I looked it up: it’s a tufted titmouse, at the very northern edge of its range in southern Colorado. I’d never heard of them, let alone seen one before. Neat-looking bird, although you don’t see many species, outside of bluebirds and blackbirds, that are all one color.
Here’s another new bird to me, from the same morning hike: it’s a Bewick’s wren. I couldn’t get on the other side of it to take advantage of the morning sun, but I kind of like this backlit effect anyway. I’d never seen too many species of wrens before we started full-timing in the Goddard; I’ve since seen several, and they’re very attractive little birds.
This is a cropped photo taken with a telephoto lens from a long, long way from this bird, but I’d never seen one before. This is a pied-billed grebe swimming on one of the park’s lakes, and it spent more time submerged than swimming on the surface. I saw eight bird species at Lathrop State Park that I hadn’t yet seen in 2022, and three of them (the last three pictured) were species I’d never seen at all.
There were lots and lots of chipping sparrows at Lathrop. I’m not sure if there were more of these or if there were more American robins at the park (and there were a lot of blackbilled magpies, too). Very pretty calls from these little birds.

By the time we left Lathrop State Park on April 24, I’d seen 51 different species of birds in three different states in 2022. It had become obvious that being around water, whether it’s a river or a lake, greatly increases both the chance of seeing birds and the opportunity to see different species of birds. That would become even more clear at the next Colorado state park at which we’d camp.

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