As I walked along the edge of Fossil Ridge Reservoir, I was making my usual mistake of thinking about where I was headed, not where I was.
The high-pitched call, which some liken to the yipping of a puppy, finally caught my attention about the same time a large shadow darkened the dry grass next to the trail.
I looked up.
Circling above me was a massive eagle, predominately a dark sienna brown, with white patches in his wings and at the base of his tail. He was too high up to tell exactly the width of his wingspan, but I would estimate it to be about the same as my 5-foot, 9-inch height — maybe a little longer if you include his wingtips that were spread out like fingertips as he soared. He was calling to another eagle near a treetop nest by the water.
Many of us travel to seek out quiet surroundings, removed from the hectic pace we keep at home. I only had to drive 5 miles from my doorstep in south Fort Collins to get to the reservoir on that random August Tuesday, but it felt like I had traveled to a whole new place. Sometimes you just need a little peace, a place where things are orderly without a clock and calming in their natural rhythm.
For me, there’s no faster route to the freedom and peace of nature than on the wings of birds.
Some may find it surprising that birding was widely declared the country’s second fastest-growing hobby a few years ago — a couple of years ago, I would have been one of them. I’m not a likely birder; mostly because I’ve never been one to sit still for long.
But during a rare occasion earlier this summer, I was sitting on my patio when a hummingbird starting feeding from the flower pot about 4 feet in front of me. The tiny bird (some weigh less than 0.1 ounce) interrupted her meal to turn, hovering in midair and look right at me. There are very few moments in my life when time has stopped like it did that day.
The beauty of birds is that they are everywhere you already are and everywhere you are going; all you have to do is slow down long enough to look for them.
We have nearly 500 recorded species of birds here in Colorado — more than any other non-coastal state. Just in the past month, I caught a glimpse of the bright azure of a mountain bluebird in the trees next to a Breckenridge chairlift, the long, lean elegance of a sandhill crane gracing the skies of the Yampa Valley and a great horned owl hunting behind my house.
Birds also provide the soundtrack for our adventures here in Colorado. Just as the meadowlark sings the song of spring across the meadows, the chickadee’s “dee-dee-dee” rings across fields of snow all winter.
Although they enhance any outdoor expedition, birds can also be the destination. The Colorado birding trail links outdoor recreation sites into a network through a designated driving route. There are 54 trails containing almost 800 sites from which to view watchable wildlife. Some include hiking or walking paths.
While the subtle pleasures of bird watching may not be for everyone, I dare say that the thrill of spotting a bald eagle is.
Despite being born and raised in Colorado, I grew up thinking of the bald eagle as a mythical creature that only the lucky few would ever see. Sadly, the use of pesticides such as DDT in the ’60s drove the birds to the edge of extinction.
“In the early 1970s, there were fewer than 450 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 United States, and fewer than 10 in the entire state of Colorado,” said Matt Smith, outreach biologist with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. “However, today the odds of seeing one of these majestic birds is quite good, especially cross the Front Range.”
In fact, Smith heads up the Conservancy’s “Eagle Watch Program,” in which citizen scientists observed and reported on about 100 nests along the Front Range this spring.
While many of these nests are on private land, there are some in full view of the public. At Barr Lake, just northeast of Denver, there is a nest that has welcomed eaglets since 1988. At the time it was discovered, it was the first bald eagle nest east of the Continental Divide. In 2017, Westminster debuted its Standley Lake eagle cam for the opportunity of an up-close look inside the nest.
While spring is the best time to see the new arrivals, adult bald eagles are easiest to spot in the late fall and winter when they return from their northern homes to the relatively milder temperatures along the Colorado Front Range.
“The birds usually arrive in November or December, and that’s when we see signs of courtship,” Smith said. “They get serious about their nesting in January, so that’s when reports of new nests really start coming in.”
My August visit to Fossil Creek Reservoir was too early for the bald eagles who will spend nights in communal roosts in the cottonwood trees later in the fall, but I didn’t mind.
After the excitement of the golden eagles, I was content to sit in the shade of the blind watching the spotted sandpipers running along the shore, the clark’s grebes diving for fish and the yellow warblers flitting in the bushes nearby.
With my heart rate slowed and my mind refreshed, I reluctantly got back in my car for the short trip back to the rush of the real world.