Spring means migratory birds return to the Roaring Fork Valley | PostIndependent.com

Spring means migratory birds return to the Roaring Fork Valley

Julie Bielenberg
The Aspen Times
A reader on Independence Pass recently took this photograph of male, broad-tailed hummingbird showing off his iridescent throat feathers, called a gorget.
Summer Richards/Special to The Aspen Times

Birding is big business — from hobbies and passions to retail and education — and the Roaring Fork Valley is nested with niche aviary activity.

So spring here is not only about blooms and blossoms, but also bugs and … birds. Dozens of species of birds returning from winter grounds around now.

Which brings us to ACES, or more properly, the Aspen Center For Environmental Studies, and Hallam Lake, the organization’s HQ and original 25-acre site a couple of blocks off Main Street founded in 1968 by Elizabeth Paepcke.

“Hallam Lake is a biodiversity hot spot, and this includes birds,” said Adam McCurdy, the center’s forest and climate director, noting species that haven’t been seen in decades are looking to roost at the lake near the post office.

Hallam Lake near downtown Aspen is a biodiversity and bird hot spot.
Dale Filhaber/Special to The Aspen Times

“The incredible diversity of habitat types and year-round open water make it an excellent home for resident and migratory birds,” he said. “We’ve documented 117 different species of birds at Hallam Lake.”

In a recent blog post, ACES reported: “On Tuesday, 4/25, after yet another storm dropped a few inches of snow on the preserve, we were delighted to see 29 skittery willets (Tringa semipalmata inormata) on the shore of Hallam Lake. The willet is a large shorebird, aka, a big, chunky sandpiper. What makes this rare sighting extremely fulfilling here at ACES is that the birds congregated in a focus area of the Hallam Lake restoration project which was completed in 2022.”

“It has been fascinating,” said Phebe Meyers, ACES community programs senior manager, “to see species like the willets (which haven’t been seen at Hallam Lake in over a decade), spotted sandpiper, and Wilson’s snipe be so responsive to the improved emergent wetland habitat.”

Great blue herons that began nesting on the property during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 have already returned this spring. 

“This year, we now have at least six active nests, four new active nests from last year. Hallam Lake is their new heronry,” Myers said.

A blue heron glides over Lake Christine outside of Basalt.
Paul Hilts/Courtesy

Ospreys, a type of hawk, can log more than 160,000 migration miles during its 15- to 20-year lifetime. 

“It has been so fun to watch our local Roaring Fork Valley breeding population of osprey grow over the years,” she said. “These long-distance migrants winter up and down the coasts of Mexico and Central America and as far south as northern Argentina and make the flight back to the Roaring Fork Valley each year.”

She added: “The songs of arriving migratory species that echo across our preserve is such a wonderful familiar spring chorus we look forward to each year. A few recent arrivals have been the osprey, yellow warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, violet-green swallow, fox sparrow, ruby-crowned kinglet, and broad-tailed hummingbird.”


The first males arrived in early May and various varieties of hummingbirds are returning to their summer grounds. 

“Hearing the first male, broad-tailed hummingbird’s wing trill announcing his arrival as he flies quickly around the preserve is one of my favorite spring moments, which typically happens in early May,” said Meyers.

Spring Valley resident and unofficial birder Jim Austin was excited to see the hummingbirds returning. 

Brenda Sanderson snapped this photo of a hummingbird feeding in the garden near Snowmass.
Brenda Sanderson/Courtesy

“I’ve got three feeders up right now, and I’ll have up to six of them as the season progresses,” he said. “I love the hummers. I love when they arrive and really love when they leave. They are a lot of work, those guys.”

Just like everything natural in the valley, hummingbird numbers fluctuate. 

“It really depends in the valley and where you’re looking. A couple years ago, there were very few in Spring Valley until late season, but I asked a lady in Aspen, and she had her normal number of hummers early on,” Austin said. “I can’t say there’s been either a surge or a lack over the total course of my Spring Valley history.” 

Downvalley birding

He’s lived in Spring Valley for over four decades. Through the years, he has become a casual bird fancier, not a real “birder,” as he would put it.

He’s also casual (but diligent) about keeping weather and other records. 

“That’s just something that’s proven fun to do,” said Austin. “Like, who wouldn’t be interested in knowing that turkey vultures almost always show up in the Roaring Fork Valley on April 1? Or that hummers and doves are predictably here end of April year after year?”

He has become known in his neighborhood and golf community for building and maintaining dozens of birdhouses.

“I’ve got both wren houses and bluebird houses mounted around the area, although mostly bluebird houses. The bluebird houses have an entry hole large enough to attract other birds, like tree swallows or nuthatches. There are a lot of tree swallows around but fewer nuthatches. And I don’t closely monitor the houses so there may be other species I’m hosting,” said Austin.

A tree swallow pokes its head from a birdhouse.
Mark Fuller/Courtesy

Over the years, he has built and maintained a couple of hundred birdhouses. Currently, there are 20 around Spring Valley, another 20 around his partner’s property, and 18 at Ironbridge Golf Course. 

“I’ve got all bluebird boxes there, and the occupants are pretty well split between bluebirds and tree swallows who love the golf-course ponds. We’ve had the occasional English Sparrow, but I try to dissuade those non-indigenous guys. The neat thing about Ironbridge is they have both mountain and western bluebirds there,” he said Austin.

“I love the mourning doves and turkey vultures of course. It’s great to see migrating warblers and fun to see bluebirds occasionally in mid-winter. Towhees, white crowned sparrows, siskins, grosbeaks, orioles, tanagers, the sandhill cranes that nest down below us in the valley, and many more I see but can’t identify, or have already forgotten, are all fascinating.”

The weather enthusiast noted that birds really to like the wet weather, so chances of spectacular spottings this spring should be good. Austin’s seen a condor down the road, and his neighbor had a bald eagle in their yard last week; so hopefully, 2023 World Migratory Bird Day delivers flocks of feathers. 

Upcoming ACES birding events

  • Tuesday, May 16, 7 a.m., “May Birding” at Rock Bottom Ranch
  • Wednesday, May 17, 6:30 a.m., “Birding by Habitat,” Airport Radar Road
  • Friday, May 19, 7 a.m., “North Star Birding: Songs of Breeding Birds”
  • Monday, May 22, 7 a.m., “Birding by Habitat: Spring Birding on Sopris Creek”
  • Wednesday, June 14, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., “Painting & Birding,” in partnership with Art Base, ACES Rock Bottom Ranch

Local birding authors

Authors Rebecca Weiss and Mark Fuller are on their second release of “Birds of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley: A Guide to Birds and Their Habitats from Independence Pass to Glenwood Springs, Including the Crystal and Fryingpan Valleys.”

Oh, by the way, Saturday just so happened to be World Migratory Bird Day.

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