As I traipsed through the snow listening to birding expert Rebecca Weiss, her words were suddenly drowned out by a mass of quacking ducks.
We stopped walking and looked up at the sky, where hundreds of ducks were coming in for landing on the small, half-frozen pond at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the 25-acre nature preserve that’s just a few blocks from downtown Aspen.
The scene couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. Weiss had just been extolling the virtues of winter birding, including the many beautiful species of waterfowl — birds like ducks and geese — who call Colorado home in winter.
Many people think of birding as a warm-weather activity. Not at all. In fact, winter is a great time to go birding, especially if you’re a beginner or you want to casually dabble in the sport — and here’s why.
1. Birds are in their Sunday best.
Not only are there many species of ducks and geese who travel to Colorado during winter, but they’re also sporting their best, brightest and most colorful feathers for the occasion.
“The ducks in winter are wearing their breeding plumage, so they are at their most beautiful and their most colorful in the winter,” Weiss said. “Most other birds are in their bright pretty colors for breeding in the summertime, but for ducks, it’s the opposite, and they’re extra colorful in winter.”
Weiss shared a few of her favorites: hooded mergansers (“The color patterns are so crisp and they just look like a work of art,” she said.), green-winged teals and Barrow’s goldeneyes.
2. They’re easier to see in the trees.
Perhaps you’ve noticed (and even complained about) the drab, brown winter landscape while at the same time reminiscing about the bright limes and deep emeralds of summer.
Another, more positive way of looking at it? Fewer leaves on deciduous trees and shrubs means it’s much easier to spot birds at this time of year. Birds can help you better appreciate the underwhelming scenery.
“There’s less foliage for them to hide in or be obscured by,” Weiss said. “The rest of the landscape is kind of drab white or browns and greys — that winter color palette — so birds really pop against the background.”
3. They travel in flocks.
Birds also change their behavior during winter, which can make them easier to observe. In summer, birds are typically breeding and nesting, which basically means they’re trying to lay low to avoid attracting the attention of predators. They’re secretive with their nesting locations, and they tend to spread out from one another.
In winter, however, birds are primarily focused on finding food, which can be harder to come by. To improve their chances, some birds travel in flocks.
“Birds find food more efficiently in flocks,” Weiss said.
4. There are many birds you’ll only see in the winter.
Some birds migrate south from Colorado in winter. But for others, Colorado is their warmer, southern migratory hub during the cold months (compared to places like Alaska and Canada).
Maybe you’ve been surprised to see a bald eagle on one of your recent pandemic walks. These massive, iconic birds have a presence in Colorado all year long, but their numbers drastically increase during winter — from a few hundred to more than 1,000. Head to Barr Lake State Park and other large bodies of water and you’re nearly guaranteed to see one (or, more likely, dozens).
RELATED: Where to see bald eagles during their annual winter visit to Colorado
5. They’re the perfect excuse to take a COVID-safe road trip.
You don’t have to travel far — or really anywhere — to see birds. But if you’re looking for an adventure that’s slightly farther afield, birding is a great excuse to take a COVID-safe road trip with members of your household or your pandemic pod.
These weekend getaways can also serve the dual purpose of supporting local hotels, restaurants and small businesses that are really hurting right now. Many of these places rely heavily on tourism dollars from annual festivals and events tied to bird migrations, gatherings that are canceled because of the pandemic.
Head to Prowers and Bent counties in southeastern Colorado in February and March to see the majestic flocks of bright white snow geese (the annual High Plains Snow Goose Festival is canceled this year). To see and hear the spectacle of thousands of leggy sandhill cranes during the same time frame, travel south to Monte Vista or head east to Kearney, Neb., which is a five-hour drive from Denver (Monte Vista’s annual crane festival is being held online; Nebraska’s Crane Trust is hosting virtual crane tours).
“The festivals are canceled but obviously the birds don’t know that,” said Sheridan Samano, a Lafayette-based naturalist guide and the author of “Best Birding Hikes – Colorado’s Front Range.”
“If you can and you feel safe, birdwatching is an easy activity to plan a trip around,” Samano said. “You’re outside, you can social distance. You don’t have to fly somewhere; you can drive.”
6. Make new (human) friends
It’s more challenging than ever to socialize and meet new people, but birding can be a COVID-safe outlet for making friends.
Samano hosts the popular Birding and Beers group on Meetup.com, which has grown to more than 1,100 Front Range members since its founding in 2012. During non-COVID times, the group would meet for a local birding outing, then members would get to know each other over a beer at a nearby craft brewery. Group members are still meeting for socially distanced birding (minus the brewery part) and over Zoom.
“A lot of people are single, they live alone, they’re working from home — it’s been a hard year,” Samano said. “But everybody’s been loving (the Zoom meetings). It’s that connection. Let’s talk to people, let’s see what everybody’s doing.”
7. Birding makes all other winter activities more exciting
Whether you’re standing in a ski area lift line or trudging back to your car in a suburban parking lot, birding makes every other winter activity much more interesting. Birds are everywhere — all you have to do is notice them.
Birding can also help you practice mindfulness, since you need to be totally present in the moment while watching and listening for them.
“It’s just a wonderful way to connect with the natural world,” Weiss said. “(Nature) just gives us a sense of grounding and well-being and calm in a world where things change minute by minute these days. We’re all hanging on by the seat of our pants and nature is this great, calming, reassuring force. And to me, birds link us into that really well.”
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