Colorado in November
From the flock an eagle now comes flying;
Dipping, rising, circling, comes she hither.
Loud screams the eagle, flying swift.
The arrival of bald eagles transmutes November from a somewhat dull, in-between month to a time of excitement. Sensitized by the eagles, we realize this"pewter" month holds many shining moments.
Short-eared owls and rough-legged hawks arrive from the north to feast on voles and other small mammals that remain active throughout the winter. Some birds reveal their presence with raucous calls, and we find ourselves squawking back at intelligent and mischievous ravens and jays. Wild turkeys, so different from their domestic cousins, enchant us with their ventriloquist-like gobblings and iridescent feathers as they skulk through pion-juniper woodlands.
While black bears enter a state of dormancy, mule and white-tailed deer find November the most exciting month of the year. It's their rutting season. Hearing the clatter of antlers as bucks duel should be electrifying enough to arouse even hibernating bears from their torpor. These battles convince us that the "ember" in November has been fanned to flame.
During autumn wild turkeys gather into large flocks. By day they scour the forests and woodlands for seeds, wild fruits, and insects. At night they roost in tall trees; Colorado's wild turkeys generally favor ponderosa pines with round or flattened tops.
During the spring mating season, toms gather on strutting grounds where they gobble, fan their feathers, and fight fiercely to win the affections of sometimes admiring, but more often disinterested, hens. After mating, the hens nest on the ground in tall grass or pine needles or at the base of a scrub oak or pion pine. Since a single hen may raise as many as 14 chicks and hens often travel together with their young, maternal flocks may number more than forty birds.
Overhunting, habitat destruction, and importation of European diseases led to the near extirpation of wild turkeys in North America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For several decades scientists tried to augment native turkey populations by breeding turkeys in captivity and releasing them into the wild. These efforts failed because turkeys captured from the wild could not survive in captivity, and crossbreeding of domesticated and wild turkeys produced birds that lacked the hardiness and wariness needed to survive in the wild. During the 1940s and 1950s, biologists began to use only wild birds in restocking programs. North American wild turkey populations increased rapidly and now exceed four million birds.
Wild turkeys occur throughout much of southern and eastern Colorado in ponderosa pine forests, oak woodlands, piq woodlands, and plains riparian woodlands. Unlike their domesticated cousins, they are wily and fast moving. Search for them at dawn or dusk, and listen for their gobbling throughout the day and year.
Where To Go:
Mesa Verde National Park, near Cortez.
Dolores River Canyon, north of Cortez.
Santa Fe Trail, Air Force Academy, north of Colorado Springs.
Tamarack Ranch State Wildlife Area, near Sterling.
Comanche National Grassland-Cottonwood, Carrizo, Sand, and Holt Canyons.
Purgatoire River Canyon, south of La Junta.
Wintering Raptor Concentrations
During the colder months, raptor prey becomes less abundant as many small mammals head underground and most songbirds head south. Birds of prey, no longer tied to summer nesting territories, congregate near rivers, wetlands, prairie dog colonies, and other areas that support relatively high numbers of visible prey.
Bald eagles that have nested in Idaho, Montana, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska arrive in Colorado in late October or early November and stay until March. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has counted more than one thousand balds in Colorado during January and February. The eagles hunt and scavenge throughout the day and spend nights in nocturnal roosts, usually located near water. Biologists and naturalists have counted as many as fifty bald eagles at Left Hand Creek, north of Boulder, and along the South Platte River near Weldona.
Bald eagles soar over the eastern foothills and western valleys looking for dead deer and other carrion, they search lakeshores and riverbanks for disabled waterfowl, and they perch on the periphery of prairie dog colonies waiting for ferruginous hawks or red-tailed hawks to make a kill. Once a hawk has killed a prairie dog, a dozen or more eagles and hawks may appear out of nowhere to share in the bounty. A study of bald eagle foraging habits in southeast Alaska found that an average prey item changed hands a dozen times before it was totally consumed.
A few hundred ferruginous hawks reside in Colorado year-round, but most of our wintering ferruginous hawks come from Wyoming and other points to the west. These majestic, white-breasted raptors are the largest North American hawk; they can kill and carry away prey as large as prairie dogs and rabbits. Ferruginous hawk concentrations occur around prairie dog colonies throughout eastern Colorado. Wintering populations have declined recently in areas where urbanization and poisoning have eliminated prairie dog colonies.
Rough-legged hawks are somewhat smaller than ferruginous hawks and have much smaller talons, so they prey mostly on meadow voles, deer mice, other small rodents, and insects. Since they nest north of the Arctic Circle, they are among the last wintering raptors to arrive in Colorado. Look for them around wetlands and grasslands throughout the state.
Red-tailed hawks nest, migrate through, and winter in Colorado, so it's hard to distinguish the residents from the transients. Numbers peak during the fall and spring migrations, but several thousand red-tailed hawks remain in the state throughout the winter. Look for them in open country, particularly around prairie dog colonies, wetlands, and farmlands.
Since birds of prey have had much longer to adapt to humans than to automobiles, you can get much closer to them in your car than on foot. For some reason, ferruginous hawks seem particularly unwary. We've driven up to within fifty feet or so of ferruginous hawks perched on fence posts and giddily snapped pictures while the birds stared at us through placid yellow eyes.
Where To Go:
Colorado River between Kremmling and Hot Sulphur Springs. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks.
Gunnison River between Gunnison and Blue Mesa Reservoir. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks.
Monte Vista and Alamosa National Wildlife Refuges, near Alamosa. Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, and northern harriers.
Rocky Mountain Arsenal, near Denver. Bald eagles, ferruginous hawks, rough-legged hawks, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, and long-eared owls. Tours by appointment.
Boulder Reservoir and Rabbit Mountain, northern Boulder County. Bald and golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, rough-legged hawks, red-tailed hawks, and northern harriers.
Platte River north of Platteville. Bald eagles, ferruginous hawks, rough-legged hawks, and red-tailed hawks.
Jackson Reservoir and Platte River, northwest of Fort Morgan. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks.
© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication