It’s my first season of active winter birding and I’ll admit, it has gotten me through the final months of a long season. After 21 years in the Roaring Fork Valley, this past December after the bear activity died down and snow was falling, I took my birdfeeder out of the garage and filled it with black oil sunflower seed. In two weeks or so, the word was out and my feeder was regularly attracting a flock of brightly colored male house finches and their feisty female counterparts. Until that time, I hadn’t realized just how much I needed to be reminded that even in the gray of winter, the color of life remains outside of our four walls, the promise of spring with every visit.
Mark Fuller, a resident of Missouri Heights and board member of Roaring Fork Audubon, has spent much of his life observing birds and photographing them. “I’ve been taking pictures for 40 years,” says Fuller. “A few years ago, I purchased a telephoto lens, which makes all the difference in bird photography, and my portfolio grew from there. It became something of an obsession.”
Fuller’s photographs are the heart of the recently published book, “Birds of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley” (available at local bookstores and outdoor shops), written by Rebecca Weiss, guide for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies birding program. Fuller is happy to introduce novice birders to the hobby, one that is virtually free, especially in winter.
“People are sometimes surprised there are birds here in the winter at all,” he says. “The layman’s understanding is that birds migrate — leave in winter and come back in spring. It is surprising to many that a number of bird species remain here all year, and another group only comes here in the winter, that you can only see this time of year.”
Fuller provides the example of the rough-legged hawk, an arctic bird of prey much lighter in color and smaller than a typical red-tailed hawk. One or more of the rough-legged hawk species has recently been spotted along Catherine Store and Hooks Spur roads. “That bird breeds in the far north,” he says. “This is a mild climate compared to its breeding grounds. We won’t see it here in the summer, but it winters here occasionally, like other species, many of which are identified in our book.”
Providing a variety of feeders with high-fat seed or suet can help birds of all species survive the winter. The reward is the variety of birds that one may encounter, which changes towards the end of winter and into spring as migrants and local breeders arrive. For a local event of particular importance, Fuller mentions the annual Monte Vista Crane Festival in the San Luis Valley, March 8-10, where 15 to 20,000 spectacular sandhill cranes gather on their way to their breeding grounds north.
“That’s what makes winter birding really fun,” he says. “You will see many varieties of birds now and not any other time of year. It brings a little life — a little hope — in the dead of winter.”
Amiee White Beazley is a Basalt-based journalist. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Wine Enthusiast and Sunset magazine among other national publications. Read more at awbeazley.com