02 May 2012

A Few Colorado Birds

We're still trying to get through our Colorado photos before moving back to more local posts.  After this post on some of the birds that we saw, I anticipate one or two more posts before returning to Indiana.

Black-billed Magpie
Although many birders travel to remote places of the world to see showy birds like Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), there are plenty of showy, common birds right here in the United States.  Take, for example, the corvid above - the Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia).  In addition to the attractive royal blue, black, and white patterns, this very common bird of the western United States has a conspicuous tail that makes up half the length of the bird!  Black-billed Magpies are expanding their range eastward.  Like their American Crow, Blue Jay, and Common Raven relatives, Black-billed Magpies are smart birds.  They can sometimes be found landing on large mammals to eat the ticks off of them, or to remove ticks and cache them for later.  Insects that are hiding under rocks or logs beware... the Black-billed Magpie will flip objects to find prey.  They will also steel food from other birds, and are said to use scent to find food.  Around humans, Black-billed Magpies can be quite bold; Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reported them coming into tents and taking food from human hands.

Western Meadowlark
The song of the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) has to be one of the most complex and musical of all of the western grassland and agricultural field birds. So characteristic and unique is the Western Meadowlark and its song that it is the state bird of six western states (only outdone by the Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, the state bird of seven states).  Until the late 1800s, the Western Meadowlark and Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) were considered a single species.  In 1888, using observations recorded in 1805 by Meriwether Lewis, including that the bill shape, tail shape, and song of the western variant of the "Oldfield Lark" was different from those of the eastern variant, John James Audubon described and published the new species.

Golden Eagle
One of the most majestic of the western birds is the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).  I call this a western bird, but they are found to the Atlantic Coast in Canada, and they winter throughout the northern half of the eastern United States as well.  In addition, Golden Eagles are found in Eurasia and parts of Africa.  Mammals, fish, and birds of all sizes had better be on alert when a Golden Eagle is around; the list of prey of the Golden Eagle is diverse and includes fish, prairie dogs, hares, rabbits, ground squirrels, marmots, jackrabbits, cranes, swans, livestock, deer, seals, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, badgers, and bobcats.

Townsend's Solitaire
Although the Townsend's Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi) isn't the flashiest of birds, seeing two individuals of this species was one of the birding highlights of our trip.  Found mostly in the western 1/2 to 1/3 of the continent, occasional individuals of this species wind up in northwest Indiana almost every winter.  Although they feed on different berries and insects in the summer, during the winter Townsend's Solitaires feed almost exclusively on female cones of junipers (Juniperus spp.).
Slate-colored Fox Sparrow
At our home in northern Indiana, we have seen Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) feeding on the ground under our feeders in the winter.  The Fox Sparrow that we see in the eastern United States is the Red Fox Sparrow, aka Eastern Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca iliaca).  We weren't even aware that there were different forms of this species prior to our trip, so we were delighted to identify the bird in the photograph above as a Slate-colored Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca schistacea), the form that breeds from Brittish Columbia to Nevada and Colorado.  The two other forms of Fox Sparrow (Sooty Fox Sparrow [Passerella iliaca unalaschcensis] and Thick-billed Fox Sparrow [Passerella iliaca megarhyncha]) both have much narrower geographical ranges than the two former forms.

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