These days, the air in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) has exchanged its cautionary chill for sweet melodies and surprising flits of color. After weathering another winter, RMNP's toughest and most adaptable bird species are now being joined by their migratory friends as all prepare to feast on fresh grasses, ripening berries, and diverse stream life. Of all the recreating opportunities in Rocky, birding is perhaps the most accessible; 282 bird species have been spotted in and around RMNP since 1915. One hundred fifty of those species are shared with our sister park in Monteverde, Costa Rica, situated on the continental divide 2,100 miles to the south. Designated as globally important bird areas in 2000, both parks play a vital role in the perpetuation of bird species. So grab your binoculars, sunscreen, water, and field identification book and come witness the majesty of free-flying birds within protected public land!
The following descriptions detail how and where to spot birds in RMNP during this migratory time.
Western Tanager: This 7-inch-long bird is a real head-turner with its canary-yellow body, red head (males), black wings, and tail-feathers. Residing mostly in sub-alpine regions of the park between 9,000-11,000 feet in elevation, this insect- and fruit-loving bird stocks up on nutrients before departing for its complete migration to Monteverde in early fall. Enough rhodoxanthin, a chemical the bird acquires from its diet, will add red pigment to the male's face.
American Kestrel: This 10-12-inch-long bird-small for a falcon-has a rusty brown back and tail, white breast with dark spots, double black vertical lines on its face, and blue gray wings. Though it is generally a non-migratory bird, look for it to become more active as it hunts for insects, small mammals, and birds along Lumpy Ridge or other rocky montane areas.
Wilson's Warbler: This petite 5-inch-long bird has a dull yellow upper body and bright yellow lower body, contrasting with the distinct black cap on its head. Wilson's Warbler is another species that completes a full migration between RMNP and Costa Rica. Found in ecosystems all the way up to the tundra, this bird's all-insect diet make it one of the top insect-eating birds in Colorado.
Song Sparrow: This 6-inch-long bird is commonly brown with heavy dark steaks on its chest coalescing into a central dark spot. Though it may or may not migrate based on nutritional needs, it is commonly spotted in wet brushland or wooded creek bottoms in the lower montane ecosystem. A ground feeder, look for it to scratch simultaneously with both feet to expose seeds. Though its sweet song is a universal signal for spring, it serves a dual purpose: singing from bushes help it defend its territory!
To learn more about the birding connection between RMNP and Monteverde, join former Park Natural Resources Specialist Jeff Connor on June 19th for Birds Without Borders: Migratory Birds of RMNP & Costa Rica. For more information on where to find and how to spot our feathered friends, join RMNP's former Chief Naturalist Jeff Maugans in his upcoming bird classes through Rocky Mountain Conservancy: North with the Spring: Bird Migration on April 23, Hawks in Flight: Birds of Prey on May 14, Birds at Twilight on May 28, and Summer Birding with a Naturalist on June 11th, June 25th, July 2nd, 9th, and 16th. Join our naturalists and other birding enthusiasts by calling Rocky Mountain Conservancy to register over the phone at 970-586-3262 or online at www.RMConservancy.org.
By: Kara Wadenstierna, Olson Fellow at Rocky Mountain Conservancy- Field Institute