Historic birding around Crestone & Saguache County

Filed under: Living on the Earth |

by Pat Richmond

A half century ago, Kansas bird lovers Ed and Helen Ryan purchased a cabin on North Crestone Creek.  For three decades, Helen Ryan carefully documented not only every species but also every bird she observed at her feeders or during birding drives. Besides maintaining personal tallies, Helen penned a monthly column for the Baca Grande News, and later for The Crestone Eagle. She cited common and rare avian visitors and aptly provided advice for local birdwatchers.   Many who knew Helen and appreciated her passion for birds would agree with Kizzen Laki’s comment, “Helen made a big impact on me. Because of her, I have assorted binoculars and bird books that travel with me. She opened my eyes to the winged world.” Helen Ryan’s records, plus other historic documentation, were compiled for the Birds of Crestone and the Greater San Luis Valley Checklist (1992).

The northeastern corner of the San Luis Valley (SLV) holds a birding legacy stretching back thousands of years.  As Ice Age glaciers melted, wetlands and shallow lakes spread across the Baca Graben lowlands. For centuries, a cacophony of calls, cries, and songs, including the chortles of Sandhill Cranes, filled the air.  Pre-historic glyphic images, found throughout the SLV, represent eagles, turkeys, and waterfowl. Near Del Norte, a large, hand-pecked bird, interpreted as a crane, spreads its wings across the ceiling of a rock alcove. In 1778, Spanish cartographer Miera y Pacheco designated the eastern San Juan Mountains as Sierra de las Grullas (Mountains of the Cranes). While not as numerous within the northern SLV as in times past, Sandhill Cranes continue to tarry at the Baca National Wildlife Refuge as well as other wetland expanses within Saguache County.

Habitat diversity makes the SLV a mecca for a wide range of avian species. The landscape niche that surrounds Crestone is rich with habitat diversity.  Birds not found elsewhere in the SLV may pass through the Crestone area during migration or reside throughout summer months and even year-round.  Local records for uncommon species like Wood Duck, Northern Goshawk, Western Screech-Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Northern Mockingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Cape May Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Lazuli and Indigo buntings, Blue Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, White-winged Junco, and Harris’ Sparrow demonstrate that Crestone, the Baca, and surrounding terrain offer unique birding opportunities.

Waters from the Saguache River and its tributaries once sustained an expansive lagoon known to 18th century Spaniards as La Cienega de San Luis.  By the 20th century, this broad but shallow lake had diminished into remnant ponds, small lakes, and wetlands that today incorporate protective wildlife areas. Birders can visit Blanca Wetlands to observe Black-necked Stilt, Red-Necked Phalarope, and the threatened Snowy Plover.  White-faced Ibis and Snowy Egret nest at Russell Lakes. Migrating American Bittern, Marbled Godwit, or even a Whimbrel might wade among tall grasses along San Luis Creek. While American Avocets probe mudflats around San Luis Lake, an American White Pelican can float peacefully with Clark’s Grebe amid a bevy of ducks. San Luis Lake also buoys Ring-billed Gull, Franklin’s Gull, Forster’s Tern and the smaller Black Tern. Former park ranger John Koshak recorded a Tri-colored Heron at the lake in 1993.

The high desert shrubs that dominate the northern valley floor support species like the Sage Thrasher. This singer’s melodious voice can penetrate a passing vehicle’s closed windows. Band-tailed Pigeons, uncommon in other parts of the SLV, frequent a brush thicket that butts against the pinyon-juniper band on Road AA.  In 1853, three exploratory expeditions—Beale-Heap, Gunnison, and Frémont’s 5th—documented birds and wildlife encountered along their routes. Lt. Edward Beale’s June 1853 journal holds the first record for the indigenous sage-grouse known today as Gunnison’s Sage-Grouse.  A Gunnison’s Sage-Grouse lek (breeding demonstration ground) exists among Big Sage vegetation that covers slopes near Poncha Pass.

Although agriculture altered the SLV’s natural landscapes, irrigated fields and pasturelands lure blackbird species and numerous sparrows—Lark, Sage, Brewer’s, American Tree, Vesper, Chipping, and Song.  Black-headed and Evening grosbeaks are common within the SLV, but a Rose-breasted Grosbeak is not (22 official reports in 24 years).  Early 20th century SLV farmers referred to this colorful species as “Potato Birds” because their annual arrival, before the advent of commercial pesticides, meant extermination of crop-damaging potato bugs (Colorado Writers’ Project).  One summer, Helen Ryan recorded repeated visitations to her feeder by a Rose-breasted Grosbeak male and a female. However, she could not ascertain whether the birds had nested.

A section of Road T west of Crestone generally hosts congregations of multiple swallow species. Colorado’s State Bird, the Lark Bunting, prefers Road T’s barrow ditch.  From an old fence post, a Loggerhead Shrike can scan the short-grass landscape for prey. Say’s Phoebes and kingbirds also favor insect-rich open spaces like old floodplains.  Eastern, Western, and Cassin’s kingbirds have laid claim to utility line perches along Road X between Moffat and Saguache.

Plains, meadows, and fields present ideal habitat for observing a Northern Harrier.  Overhead, a Bald or Golden eagle might soar into view.  In the 1980s, a pair of Osprey nested on a stack of hay bales along San Luis Creek east of Villa Grove.  That winter, while on a birding outing, Helen Ryan and this birder noticed an Osprey on the ground west of the Sutherland Ranch on Rd T.  During our return drive, we witnessed an aerial battle that involved the Osprey, a Bald Eagle and a Golden Eagle. All Colorado falcon species, including Gyrfalcon and Peregrine, belong on Saguache County birding lists.  Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks notoriously prey upon feeder birds.  Utility poles and dead trees serve as favored perches for Ferruginous, Red-tailed, Rough-legged, and Swainson’s hawks.

Both deciduous and conifer forests around Crestone offer intriguing birding options. Pinyon- juniper stands attract Clark’s Nutcracker and other jays, White-breasted, Red-breasted, and Pygmy nuthatches, chickadees, and the elusive Brown Creeper.  Ruby-crowned Kinglet flits among riparian trees and bushes; the Golden-crowned Kinglet prefers higher elevation conifers.  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nests near the trail along Cottonwood Creek—also a likely place to spot a Rock Wren.  Abundant habitat vegetation that lines the Sangre de Cristo’s rippling streams entices an array of migrant songbirds.  Many, like Yellow Warbler and Warbling Vireo, stay to nest.

An indicator of habitat health, the Olive-sided Flycatcher occasionally shows up around Crestone-Baca. Black-chinned and Broad-tailed hummingbirds come early to feeders. Rufous Hummingbird appears in late summer. At San Isabel Creek, Mountain and Western bluebirds share insect-rich domains.  Robins are the best-known thrushes, but the flute-like trill of a Hermit Thrush often greets a hiker following a trail into the Sangres.  Rock-lined streambeds are ideal habitat for the American Dipper.  Old cottonwood scrags accommodate a span of woodpeckers from the small Downy to the large, distinctive Lewis’ Woodpecker.

Birding experts, amateur and professional, had compiled Colorado records for decades prior to official bird counts.  In the late 19th century, San Luis Lakes became a hotspot for ornithologists.  H. W. Henshaw, reporting through the Wheeler surveys (1871-73), initially placed many San Luis Valley species on the state’s list.  John Rawinski, author of Birding Hotspots of South-central Colorado, serves as coordinator for the San Luis Valley Birding Network which keeps modern birders informed about which species are seen, when, and where. Careful documentations have added new species like the Ruddy Turnstone, Laughing Gull, Caspian Tern, Harris’ Hawk, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Brown-crested Flycatcher to the official San Luis Valley species roster.

The Monte Vista Crane Festival allows birders with a variety of backgrounds to experience a full range of birding opportunities—especially to hear ancient chortles, to observe ritualistic dances, and to watch the great birds lift skyward—reminiscent of the glyph that hovers within a rock alcove in Sierra de las Grullas. An excursion to the Crestone-Baca area could and should further enhance festival participants’ birding experiences.

Want to read the whole paper? Visit these locations | digital subscription | paper subscription