By Ruthanne Johnson
MONTE VISTA— The songbird migration is in full force in Monte Vista, which means colorful little bird species sweeping through town and fattening up on insects in preparation for their long flight south to wintering grounds as far away as the Brazilian rainforest and Argentina.
“Migration is just spectacular and can bring some really unusual birds through town,” said wildlife biologist Jenny Nehring from Wetland Dynamics, a local company offering ecosystem management and monitoring throughout the Valley and surrounding areas. Birds and other migrating wildlife use riverways as well as the stars to help them navigate, which makes the Rio Grande River a well-used and important migratory route.
Some of the most colorful species are warblers. “September for us down in the Valley floor means the migration of some very interesting and beautiful little warblers, like the Wilson’s Warbler, MacGillvray’s Warbler and Western Tanager,” Nehring said. At first glance, the birds look like nothing more than little dabs of yellow or red flitting through the trees. Binoculars bring each bird’s splendid details to life: banana yellow bodies, black eye patches, yellow and black striped heads and white wing bars.
“The Wilson’s Warbler breeds in our Colorado mountains and then comes down to hang out in town before heading south,” Nehring said. “They’re a little yellow warbler with a black cap.” The Western Tanager dons a flaming orange-red head, bright yellow body and black wings. “It looks like a crazy bird that some first grader drew, but it’s a real bird that is one of the most colorful western birds around.”
Species that migrate long distances to reach their breeding and wintering grounds are called neotropical birds. “The small size of these birds and the distances they travel is just astounding,” Nehring said. “They only weigh a couple of ounces but travel thousands of miles.” The journey gives Nehring a greater appreciation for healthy ecosystems and not just for places where the birds breed and overwinter. “Migratory stopover habitat like here along the Rio Grande is as important as breeding and wintering grounds, but it’s often overlooked.”
Other birds migrating through town include species such as Black-headed and Evening Grosbeaks, Spotted and Green-tailed Towhees, Common Nighthawks and hummingbirds. “In September, we’ll get Broad-tailed and Calliope hummingbirds,” Nehring said. Calliope are the smallest hummingbird species, weighing less than half an ounce (less than the weight of two quarters).
You can spot warbler and other migrating species in areas with concentrations of trees, like around the parking lot of the Monte Vista Golf Course, around the veteran’s center at Homelake and even the cemetery. Some bird species, like the Yellow-rumped Warbler, prefer being high up in the trees. Others such as the Wilson’s Warble and Spotted and Green-tailed towhees like foraging lower in the trees and on the ground.
A good way to spot birds hidden in the trees is to stand still, look for movement and listen. “Warblers have this short little chip note, and if you hear it you will know your trees are alive with warblers migrating,” Nehring said. “It’s their way of communicating with each other, ‘I found food!’” Chip notes also vary between warbler species. “The Wilson’s have this squeaky quality to their chip note. A MacGillavary’s is sharper and more musical. The Yellow-rumped is just sort of standard.” (Find recordings of bird calls on allaboutbirds.com.)
There’s also good birding along the river walk in Rio Grande State Wildlife Area and trails through the Wright-Shriver State Wildlife Area, which are both rich with bird life. Sweet spots at the Monte Vista National Wildlife include the County Road 8S pullout and around the visitor’s center parking lot. On a recent bird outing to the refuge, local ornithologist John Rawinski spotted over 15 different bird species in tree stands along the County Road 8S pullout, including six warbler species and a rare sighting of a Cassin’s Vireo.
“But don’t forget about birdwatching in your own backyard,” Nehring said. “People don’t think of their backyard as habitat---but it is.” Though some birds are attracted to the seed, nuts and berries typically found in birdfeeders, species such as warblers and towhees are not because they eat insects. To draw these insect-loving birds into your yard, grow native plants like currants, rabbitbrush, snowberry and three-leafed sumac. Most beneficial insects have evolved to use native vegetation, which translates into a bounty for species such as warblers, towhees and wrens.
Nehring also suggests putting out water as well, which attracts a wider variety of birds. “Birds attract birds,” she said, “so even though the warblers won’t eat my sunflower seeds, the backyard is full of birds and that will attract migrants.”
Another fascinating bird event that happens this time of year is the “staging” of Common Nighthawks. Normally, these dawn and dusk hunters are territorial, divebombing other birds and even humans who cross into their territory. But in late summer, nighthawks gather in flocks of 40 or 50 birds, flying in their typical erratic style of loops, bat-like flapping and sporadic glides at high altitudes in the early evening sky. “I’ve seen this several times over the last couple of weeks,” Nehring said. The birds are eating insects but the practice also provides support as they migrate to South America. “It helps teach the route to the new young of the year,” Nehring explained. “They learn how to migrate, how to pick safe resting places, how to feed themselves and prepare for traveling.”
According to reports, a few Sandhill Cranes have also been spotted around the Valley. “Larger numbers start coming through in mid-September, with the peak in the first two weeks of October,” said Suzanne Bouchaine, manager of the Monte Vista and Alamosa national wildlife refuges. Good viewing can be found on the east side of Highway 15 and the refuge drive. “They should be roosting and loafing in there from about 10 a.m. to an hour or two before sunset.”
To celebrate the crane’s return to the Valley, the refuge is hosting the 13th Annual Kid’s Crane Fest on Oct. 6, starting at noon at the visitor’s center. There will be educational activities for kids and food and crane viewing for everyone.
Bird migrations are phenomenal natural events. “The small size of these birds and the distances they travel is nothing short of astounding,” Nehring said. “When you are aware of these small species passing through, it gives you sort of a landscape view of the world,” she said. “It becomes an opportunity for people to understand how connected and small our world is really.”