A great horned owl hopped in front of my car as I pulled onto Highway 7; a couple of crows circled nearby. The owl was obviously injured, so I called information and got Boulder County’s bird of prey rescue center.
“There’s an owl just off the highway. She can’t fly. What do you recommend?” I said.
“Oh, just pick her up and bring her to us as soon as you can,” the bird lady said.
“Just pick her up?”
“Yeah, watch her feet. They have sharp talons.” I felt like Napoleon Dynamite in the chicken coup.
The crows moved closer. I grabbed a blanket out of my trunk and scooped the hissing bird into a box and on to the rescue center. She seemed relieved; I was hooked: birds, birding, anything feathered.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to sit in the bushes for hours, with pith helmet and binoculars bigger than my head, waiting for the elusive yellow-bellied sapsucker to pop out. I own a small pair of Nikons and a handful of birding books, but I don’t obsessively record every bird I see. But I am more aware of this community around us. Birds give me—and you, if you choose to accept this assignment—something to look at and think about on walks, runs, drives. You just need to be aware. They’re dependable—they’re always out there. They don’t demand anything from you.
Think of birding like your car. Say you bought a PT Cruiser but never noticed them on the road until you scored yours. Now it seems they’re everywhere. Well, noticing birds is like that except every car on the road is now a PT Cruiser. That’s a little frightening, but you get the idea. When you’re aware, you see birds everywhere: a pair of mallard ducks shooting across the horizon, magpies skirting along a cattle fence, pelicans diving in a pond for fish. The Front Range is rich for bird viewing in general and raptors in particular. In fact, the best way to start is to look for the larger birds like hawks and great blue herons.
Just look up.
That’s what Firestone birder Brian Wheeler recommends. Wheeler, author of Raptors of Western North America, says to look for the big birds because, well, they’re easier to spot. And because Colorado is home to so many.
“It’s a melting pot,” Wheeler said. “The eastern half of Colorado is one of the best places in the country for raptors.”
You don’t have to go far to see what he means. Look along any stretch of telephone poles and you’ll see a red-tail hawk eyeing its next meal. And right now, thousands of Swainson’s hawks are flying in from Argentina to summer in Colorado. Look for the huge great blue heron flying like a graceful flapping hang glider. Once you notice these biggies, you’ll be aware of all the birds out there. You’ll know—like I do—that great horned owls are fierce predators, preying on crows and just about any other bird. So any time you see crows mobbing, chances are there’s an owl nearby.
+ Eagle Optics Triumph 8×25 Porro Prism $79.99 Get up close and personal with your new feathered friends. The Triumph Porro Prism is an eight-power binocular. It’s lightweight and focuses close or far.
+ Guide to Birds of North America CD-ROM $79.95 When the weather is not prime for bird watching or you just feel like staying in, turn on your Dell and experience nature through this bird-watching software. This guide includes 900 birds, 2,788 top-quality photos, 707 songs, 90 videos and 926 range maps.
[Wheeler’s Tips for Birders]
+ Put a bird feeder out
+ Plant a conifer like a Blue Spruce as a bird habitat
+ Look on telephone poles/wires for hawks and kestrels
+ Get out in the country and listen to their sounds
+ Buy an illustrated guidebook